They went from learning to teaching in less than two weeks.
Anurima Chattopadhyay and Sonia Bhaskaran had just graduated from La Cañada High School on June 3. Like ceremonies across the nation, the event had to adapt to social distancing guidelines. The students were, for the time being, celebrated at a car parade.
The two 17-year-olds have adapted, too. They, along with their friend and 2019 LCHS graduate Ashlyn Oh, 18, recently launched a virtual science camp for young students. The online camp, named “Experiment in Your Element,” allows children entering grades 4-6 to engage with brief lectures and projects — all taught by the three LCHS alumnae.
“We’re trying to give the kids an opportunity to experiment and discover on their own without being restricted to just lectures delivered online via Zoom,” Chattopadhyay said in a phone interview. “We’re trying to teach them, ‘Oh, this is how you make a hypothesis, this is how you gather data’ — the sort of skills they’re going to need as they enter high school and middle school.”
The enrollment fee was $105 per child, covering the week’s five 90-minute camp sessions and materials for the science projects, which were picked up at the LCHS campus. The first day of the weeklong program started June 15 and the second week will end Friday, June 26.
Bhaskaran said that when she was younger, she pictured the role of a scientist as someone who sat alone at their computer all day — until she worked on some science activities herself and realized how collaborative the field was. Now, she’s trying to spark a similar realization in the kids she’s working with. “I hope that with the small group activities that we’re doing, and as they work on writing in their journals and talking to each other and brainstorming together, that it’ll help them see science in a more interactive and engaging way,” she said via video call.
ONLINE PLATFORM PRESENTS SOME HINDERANCES
The camp’s curriculum focuses on a different subject each day. For example, a recent session taught children about basic chemistry, allowing them to experiment with cabbage juice, which changes color when mixed with something acidic or basic.
However, there are some limitations to the program. Working with young students over Zoom is more difficult than working with them in person, Oh said, though she said breaking the class into smaller groups allows for closer interaction, and therefore better engagement with the kids.
“It’s weird to think that we might be transitioning slowly out of that stage of being the older kid and into being seen as adults,” Oh said. “[But] there’s just something great about that kind of in-between role, where you don’t feel like you’re quite the adult who is responsible for everything. You get to have fun with the kids.”
The three LCHS grads credit their familiarity with leading the online camp from working in high school with elementary school students at in-person science camps through the Science National Honor Society chapter. They also experienced distance learning after classes were moved online this semester.
“Having dealt with Zoom lectures and remote learning firsthand,” Chattopadhyay said, “we were definitely able to see both the pros and also the shortcomings, which were mainly that we weren’t able to engage in the sort of hands-on learning that we do in a chemistry lab or in a biology lab or even in a physics lab at school.
“So we could definitely relate to the kids and their need to get out and do something, and not just stare at a screen listening to someone lecture for hours on end.”
BREAKING THE MOLD
All three of the group members will be majoring in a science-related field at a college or university in the fall. Oh will be entering her second year at Williams College. But they said they didn’t want their status as high school graduates to intimidate the younger students.
Amy Nespor, science coordinator for the La Cañada Unified School District, advised the trio on some of their ideas for the camp and helped them advertise. But, she emphasized, the work is theirs.
“These kids are breaking the mold,” she said by phone.
Nespor, who enrolled her own daughter in the camp, believes that its hands-on approach is a boon to students’ learning experience, giving them the opportunity to do science experiments themselves.
The camp organizers said they were largely motivated by a sense of restlessness. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping them mostly at home and classes over, boredom quickly set in. It was Oh, inspired by a comment from a family member about another group of kids who were trying to start a summer camp, who floated the idea to her peers.
“I’ve found rejuvenation in the work,” she said. “It’s fun! And I think kids are creative, and no matter where they are, what position they’re in, they can find a way to make use of their time to do something that means something to them.”