Six or seven times a year, Dr. Ben Stark, a biology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, drops everything and goes into his "adopted" fourth-grade classroom at Beye Elementary School in Oak Park.
Stark, a micro- (and molecular) biologist, has been an OPEF "Science Alliance" volunteer (initially called "Global Village") since the program began in 1991. The program is part of the Oak Park Education Foundation, which was established in 1989.
The longtime visiting scientist says their aim from the start has been to recruit local scientists like himself to help District 97 students connect their science studies to the real world.
And that is exactly what Dr. Stark does.
On a recent Wednesday in Paul Manus' class at Beye, students were entertained and educated by Stark's "can crusher" experiment, in which he demonstrates how air pressure, under the right conditions, can "hulk" an aluminum can.
In a separate experiment, students have grown "jillions of cells in a big colony of one-cell organisms," a more scientific way of saying "moldy bread." And year after year for a new crop of kids, Stark turns a lemon into a live battery. At the end each school year, he demonstrates how water and pressurized air can launch a plastic soda bottle like a rocket.
A couple of grade levels and a school away, meanwhile, Tim Walsh, the Percy Julian STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) teacher and one of the coaches for OPEF's VEX Robotics program, helps aspiring afterschool engineers build and program robots, three days a week, to do simple tasks for fun and future competition.
Starting with two robots and a handful of kids in 2005, Walsh said 100 kids from both middle schools now take part.
"Oh my God, this has exploded," he said. "It has humongous popularity, and we have not only gotten our schools to go to the VEX Robotics competitions, but we have also gotten other schools to come along with us."
In March, two VEX Robotic teams from Julian took top honors at the inaugural Illinois VEX Robotics State Championship in Batavia, allowing them to advance to the VEX Robotic World Championship in Anaheim, Calif., in mid-April.
"What we are really doing is giving kids an opportunity to do things they are good at, specifically with engineering," said Walsh, adding that VEX Robotics has helped change how these students view themselves in terms of technology. "It is like they are now suddenly aware that hardly anyone knows how technology works. We give them an opportunity to immerse themselves in technology, engineering, science and math all at the same time."
When Executive Director Deb Abrahamson reminisces about the Education Foundation's 25-year history, she gets a little misty-eyed.
In 1989, when OPEF was born, District 97 was nearing a fiscal crisis. At the time, forward- and creative-thinking administrators, teachers and community members decided to form a volunteer-driven nonprofit that would be able to raise money outside of the tax base and create enrichment programming that would be self-sufficient.
Over the years, countless volunteers have pitched in time and donated dollars to the nonprofit to create something sustainable.
First to emerge, she said, was Global Village, followed by "Tech Bus," a converted bus that serves as a "mobile classroom," traveling from school to school, equipped with digital video-editing equipment and a sound studio for D97 classrooms to use.
By 2000, the bus ran out of gas as D97's technology programming evolved and expanded, Abrahamson recalled.
In 1998, art joined the mix.
"For Art Start, we asked teachers, administrators, parents and community members, 'What are we lacking in our schools?'" said Abrahamson. "A number of us said we needed more artists in the schools, so a committee was formed and I became the coordinator."
It was preceded by the now defunct, Schoolyard Hoops: A 3-on-3 basketball fundraising tournament that ran from 1995 to 2003.
In 2004, Froebel Block workshops began as a way to introduce fourth-graders in D97 to the (Frank Lloyd) Wright stuff in Oak Park history.
The next year, VEX Robotics came on line, followed by OPEF's Architecture Adventure (2006) and Geared Up (2008).
In 2010, BASE (Build A Summer Education) Camp began as the first fee-based OPEF offering (scholarships available). Imaginative and challenging "camps" range from Camp Runway to Build a Bug, LEGO Landmarks to the Mural Project (which resulted in a student-driven math and genetics-inspired permanent mural, located on an embankment and underpass in the middle of Oak Park).
"What is wonderful is that kids are just there to learn, so there's no curriculum or testing connected to it," says Jenny Roen, camp coordinator. "BASE Camp is all about the fun of learning — for both teachers and the kids with a summer camp feel even though it's in a school building."
Soon, Abrahamson said, they will put out another call to the community for the next new OPEF program idea.
"Going back to the whole thing about sparking a fire in kids, that is what OPEF does," said Tim Walsh. "My whole experience is that with the ideas I have had, within reason, it's always like 'OK, let's do it.' That, for a teacher, is empowering when the organization backs your ideas, and it is a way for teachers' ideas to come to life."
Back at Paul Manus' fourth-grade Beye classroom, Dr. Stark mentions another kitchen science experiment, which proves positive air pressure can create a potato shooter, which he describes as a simple pop gun.
"Kids always like the potato shooter," he said, laughing. "The science behind it isn't so interesting really. But these are fourth-graders, so of course they like to shoot a piece of potato across the room. What could be better than that?"