Representation and Resources for Science Fair Students

[February 2019] Amanda Polanski shares her journey of helping three middle schoolers gear up for the science fair! Learn more about her experience in GCC 3026 as she addresses the lack of support and diversity in STEM.

Why did you decide to take GCC 3026?

Amanda: I knew a couple other people who had taken GCC courses and had really good experiences. They liked working with others and the fact that you get to address a global issue. GCC 3026 really centered around Diversity and STEM, and how we can support that. As a STEM major and a woman in science, that’s an area I’m really passionate about. I saw that we got to work at a local middle school, and I love working with kids. It was a bunch of interests colliding, so I was really excited to take it.

What did you do in class?

Amanda: For the first five weeks of the course, we met here on campus. We did a lot of reading, learning about how to support students, and learning what some of the disparities are within STEM regarding gender and race and different minority groups. Starting in October we went to a middle school every Monday and Wednesday for about an hour.

How was working at the middle school?

We were part of a Flipside after school program at Murray Middle School. Our program specifically was to mentor the students in their science fair projects, because part of their required curriculum is to complete a science fair project. We were basically there helping them come up with what are they interested in, how we can take those interests and put them into a science fair project, helping get supplies, ordering supplies, and then actually going through the process of doing the experiment and building the board. It was really awesome. It was definitely a different experience than I had in middle school. I went to school in the suburbs, so we were pretty privileged with a lot of opportunities and resources. This school in St. Paul was phenomenal, because the teachers at Murray are awesome, and the different people we got to work with there were super supportive. But the issues that we talked about in class were right in front of us. There were kids who couldn’t make it to our Flipside program because they had to go home and take care of younger siblings after class. We had to try and figure out how to meet the needs of the students despite our limited role. Instead of just talking about it and trying to come up with a solution for the big problem, we were actually starting to do the work. We tried different things, experienced all the things that were wrong with what we were doing, and then tried to improve it.

Was there a lot of one-on-one mentorship happening between your class and the middle school students?

Amanda:  We ideally wanted to have the smallest college student to middle school student ratio as possible. A lot of us ended up having one individual student that we worked with. I ended up working with three girls who were all best friends, and separating them was not working. I found that you have to adjust your style of mentoring based on your group. My three students were super chatty, but that’s what got them excited. It was just a matter of channeling that excitement and helping translate their ideas into science. It was super fun, especially because they were really against the science fair project in the beginning.

Why were your students so against the science fair in the beginning?

Amanda: The students all receive this huge packet of information at the beginning of the year. Then they think, “This is so much work. I’m never going to be able to do this!” That’s the attitude our class is going in trying to fight, right? So by working with them and showing them how to do it bit by bit, and by channeling their passions into a science fair project, they became more excited about science in general.

You also did a science fair in middle school. Was it interesting to compare your experience with their experience?

Amanda: It definitely was. I had way more help at home than a lot of my students. Some of the students just didn’t have the resources at home to be able to work on their projects outside of school. They also had zero experience doing a lot of the scientific research that was necessary, or how to take an idea and form it into an experiment. They were definitely at a different starting point than I had been. I had to figure out how to support them where they were at instead of trying to get them to a level they weren’t prepared for.  

What did your three students choose for their projects?

Amanda: We had a wide variety of projects in my little group. Jessina, one of my students, was really interested in butterflies. She had an idea to play music at different beats per minute and see if that changed the rate at which butterflies flap their wings. My first thought was, “I don’t know how we’re going to get butterflies, but we’re going to make it happen.” We ordered a bunch of little butterfly larvae online. Then, she and I worked together to raise them from their little larvae stage all the way to the butterfly stage. We ended up having around 20 painted lady butterflies in this big cage in the classroom. That was the most exciting part. I think Jessina was really surprised, because she had this idea of wanting to use butterflies, but she didn’t think we were going to be able to do it.

Another one of my students, Taylor, wanted to make homemade soap and test how well it worked compared to store-bought soap. We decided to test how much bacteria grew after using each dish soap. I’d never made soap before, but she went online and found a recipe she liked that was all-natural. We ordered the ingredients and shredded different things and mixed liquids, and we made some homemade soap! It was one of my favorite moments of the semester. She was running around with her soap and saying to her friends, “Here, try my soap, try my soap.” It was all-natural, so you could use it on your hands. It smelled pretty good, too.

My last student, Jekia, did not want to be in this class initially. At Murray, if you are in Magnet Science, you are required to do a science fair project. If you are in Life Science, you don’t have to do a science fair project. Jekia was in Life Science, but she was really good friends with Taylor and Jessina, so she wanted to be in their Flipside program. I told her, “The only way you can do this program is if you make a science fair project.” Jekia decided she was going to do it and said, “I don’t really care what we’re doing, as long as there are snacks.” She does track and volleyball, so we wanted to incorporate some fitness with food. We ended up having people eat healthy food, junk food, or no food, and then timed their running. Her board ended up being super great. She took these styrofoam pieces and cut out bubble letters and ended up putting so much work into it. I was so proud of her, because she really took initiative at the end to get it done. She could have quit at any point, and it would have had zero repercussions on her grade because she wasn’t in Magnet Science. It was really cool to see her actually want to complete it, and she even went to the science fair.

Did you attend the science fair?

Amanda: I actually ended up being a judge. I wasn’t able to judge any of my students due to bias, but I still snuck by to listen when they were presenting to other judges. The students have to stand by their board and wait for a judge to come to them, because they have specific judges assigned to them. I could tell they were really nervous, but when a judge would come by, they were their natural goofy selves. They explained their boards well, and it was really great to see the end product.

Your course project, which you worked on with two of your classmates, focused on increasing diversity in STEM and bridging the achievement gap in schools. Can you elaborate on those challenges and how your project addressed it?

Amanda: My group reflected a lot on our experience at Murray: what went well, the challenges we faced, and what we were unable to do in our current capacity. One thing everyone in my class learned is there’s not one solution, which is the point of all these GCC courses. There is no simple answer. One issue at Murray is that their class sizes are huge. The teachers can see the students struggling, but they only have so much time and attention that they can devote to each student. The students who don’t have additional help at home or can’t come to Flipside after school are getting left behind. These factors lead students to not being interested in science. For my group, one way we wanted to address that was to provide more support for teachers in school. So instead of just having an after school program, we could send mentors to the school during their elective hours or study hours. It would also be great if we could get someone to help teachers in their actual classes.

Another big thing we know is that students who don’t see people who look like them in STEM don’t really see themselves as having that future. One idea we came up with was doing a Murray alumni-network career fair. If we reached out to people who have graduated from Murray or who live in the surrounding area to come do some sort of career fair, students can see there are people who went to the same school or who look like them, had some of the same experiences, and this is where they’re at. We don’t want any student to be limited because they think they can’t do something. It’s something that other middle schools could look into doing as well besides just Murray.

Are you planning to pursue this project any further now that the semester is over?

Amanda: Murray has programs that I as an individual could go and tutor and work at the school. Cheryl and Keisha, our instructors, have always said we’re welcome to come back and continue working at the Flipside program. However, a couple of students in our class have been talking about potentially applying to get grants to see if we could actually implement some of our ideas that would translate really well to working at Murray.

Has this experience influenced your academic or personal goals at all?

Amanda: I definitely think it has. I’ve always been pretty passionate about social justice work, and STEM quality is a subject that I have researched a little bit in the past. The big issue is figuring out the best way to implement our ideas. Right now the research is split between people working on early intervention and people looking at college students who already have certain stereotypes ingrained in them.

Are there any movements or organizations currently tackling these issues in schools? Is there anything people can do?

Amanda: Yes. If you are at the University, it’s really easy to get involved. Murray Middle School and Justice Alan Page Middle School are looking for tutors for science and history, because History Day is coming up. Tutors that can come in during the school day are really important. 

Was there anything about your course that you found difficult or challenging?

Amanda: Being a judge at the science fair was really hard. It became clear to me through working with these students that some spent so much time and effort on their projects, and yet their completed projects were not as impressive as those belonging to some of the more privileged students who did not put in as much work. There’s a potential that other judges aren’t recognizing where these discrepancies might be stemming from. It’s not a lack of effort, or a lack of wanting to do well. It’s difficult when you know these challenges exist, and then you see it head on, and you know that a lot of people don’t recognize that they’re even there, they just see unequal results.

What was your favorite part of GCC 3026?

Amanda: My favorite part was definitely working with my three students. We got really close, and seeing them progress was huge. Seeing their mindsets shift even from the very beginning to our last day was really exciting for me. My biggest takeaway from this course is that even a small amount of time can make a difference if you’re willing to invest it in a student and recognize their strengths. A lot of times we come into a situation and just see the problems. But all those students had so many strengths, and things that they were good at, and things that they were passionate about, and they don’t have those things validated on a regular basis. So, being able to do that... that was really cool.

Anything else you would like people to know?

Amanda: For U of M students- look into doing a GCC course. There’s so many different areas of interest they cover, and even if it doesn’t necessarily fulfill like a lib ed requirement for you, I still think it’s a worthwhile experience. You get to know other students who are interested in the topic you are, and the experience of coming together to try to actually solve a problem instead of just sitting in class and learning about all the problems is pretty cool.