Nearly 25 years ago, Dr. David Kupperman, then a physicist with Argonne National Labs, built and blew off his first rounds of bottle rockets, surrounded by a classroom of giddy fourth graders learning firsthand about Newton’s Law of Physics with each pop.

That year Kupperman became a visiting scientist with the Oak Park Education Foundation’s (OPEF) Science Alliance (formerly Global Village) program, the first of OPEF’s five in-school programs that leverage the volunteerism of professionals in science, art, architecture and engineering.

In his role as visiting scientist, Kupperman has had the opportunity to mentor many fourth-grade classrooms, particularly at Whittier school.In collaboration with a classroom teacher, he usually spends an hour or so on site, semi-regularly, interactively doing simple kitchen science experiments.

His aim is to make science – and the idea of him being a scientist – real. It’s his way of helping instill in kids the basis of good science, which is inquiry, he says.

“The general idea is that a lot of us scientists want to help create a positive image for science. If we can plant the seed in these kids, it will get them interested in science long term,” says Kupperman. He then enthusiastically rattles off the other simple experiments that excite kids, including the can crusher experiment, which dramatically demonstrates the ins and outs of air pressure.

Over at Longfellow School, OPEF Science Alliance volunteer Dr. Sally Laurent Muehleisen, Ph.D, is looking up at the moon with a classroom of kids. She is hoping that simple act will inspire the youngsters to pay attention to the moonrise and become a night sky gazer like any good astronomer.

“My classroom visits always coincide with them learning about median and mode. We plot out the median of the moon’s elevation on two different days, measuring the distance it moves, and sketching the face of it, sparking conversation and learning,” says the adjunct professor of physics at IIT – Chicago. “Looking up at the night sky just really takes us back to our roots of being. Thousands and thousands of years ago, people had to understand that when a certain constellation was in the sky, then it was time to plant grain; when a different constellation was in the sky, it was time to start harvesting, because soon frost was going to come.”

What art can start

Introduced in 1998, Art Start partners local professional artists with kindergarten through eighth grade students, reaching more than 13,000 District 97 children so far. Two of those artists/writers are Guillermo Delgado and Sallie Wolf, who say they are committed to connecting to and enriching the curriculum via the language of art. Last year, in the wake of the Boston

Marathon bombing, community artist Delgado helped students understand and discuss the tragedy by using Mexican folk art to do the talking without words.

“We decided that we would pay homage to those runners who had been injured and died at the event by creating tin ornaments, in the style of Milagros [Mexican religious folk charms], and the tin ornaments we made were feet with running shoes on them,” says Delgado. In an effort to increase the art’s impact, he asked local retailer The Competitive Foot to showcase the ornaments in their window along with a sign about the project, thereby creating a shared community experience with children’s work.

As one of Art Start’s first visiting artists, Wolf says she spent time in a second-grade classroom enriching the kids’ study by helping them draw birds.

“It was pretty darn cool to take 24 kids outdoors with markers and clipboards to draw birds,” she recalls. “When we got out there, the birds all flew away, but there were migratory birds coming through, and one little girl drew a beautiful picture of a bird flying. She captured the act of it very well.”

Architecture Adventure volunteer Ken Floody, a structural engineer, says when he gives his time in a classroom, he always receives something in return. The experience has become a way to cultivate future engineers and architects.

“As a kid, when I found a hammer and nail and pounded my first boards together, that is when I knew I wanted to build things,” Floody says.”I am looking to find students who have that kind of interest level and help them to play that out, maybe into a further interest in engineering and architecture, or something in the design process.I think it is very rewarding to see that spark, or moment of understanding in these children’s eyes. And, frankly, some of them are so talented in the projects they create. I am impressed that students at that age are even thinking about things like this.

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....