Planting Seeds for Science Curiosity

by Julia Snyder

Samuel Gompers School exterior

Samuel Gompers School sits in the shadow of SJU's Barbelin Hall

Among the tiny raised hands in the third grade, senior biology majors Madison Honer and Ihunna Amugo traveled from desk to desk with samples of various leaves and seeds to ensure that everyone was able to make observations.

Every Thursday afternoon, Honer, Amugo and six other SJU students visit third- and fourth-grade students at Samuel Gompers School to deliver hands-on science lessons taught as part of the Seedlings program, an outgrowth of a biology and service learning course called Science Communication and Outreach. Honer and two other students who have completed the class in prior semesters — the program has been running for 15 years — act as mentors to the new group of five undergraduate and graduate participants.

“It’s a very organized program,” says Corrine Merlino, a junior biology major and healthcare ethics minor. “You’ve always got to adapt, because the students sometimes have days where they’re not as focused.”

Samuel Gompers School serves a purpose larger than just the education of students; as a community school, Gompers is often considered a hub for the entire community. The school features social services and has a mission that focuses on the growth of their students as a whole, not just academically. Because of the school’s proximity to Saint Joseph’s, the University has long been part of the Gompers community.

“The Seedlings program is great because I teach geology, but don't have enough resources and SJU provides many hands-on activities to keep our students interested and engaged,” says Brian Kelly, one of Gompers School’s third grade teachers. “It’s great to have some good resources such as rocks, magnifying glasses and insects. We even take two field trips to the University.”

In another classroom, fourth-grade students were full of focus and gleeful squeals as the students met their new classroom pets: a collection of crayfish that will be at the heart of their science lessons for the next month. Together, the students will go over the anatomy of their new pets, learn about animal behavior and discuss larger topics such as the food chain.

“I am a firm believer in the idea that we learn more by teaching others,” says Merlino. “If you can explain a scientific concept to a third grader, it shows how well you know the subject material yourself.”

Amid the squeals and the occasional jail-break from the crayfish, the fourth-grade students were able to get acquainted with the crustaceans and really engage in learning.

“Last week one of the students told me about the millipedes and pill bugs she found in some plants around her house and how she told her mother about them. It was really amazing to see that the material had stuck with her, and she applied it to the world around her,” says Merlino. “It is the small moments like these that make you realize the greater impact that you’re actually making on their education as well as their lives.”