It is, some teenagers say, a highlight of their week.
They arrive at 4 p.m. on a Friday at Seminole Elementary School with coins, disposable baking pans, and rolls of thin aluminum lime.
They are International Baccalaureate students at Hillsborough Secondary School, which means their lives are often awash in stress. Describing one of the IB exams of the day, student Crystal Cooper says, “It was the easiest test we’ve had to date,” and the others just roll their eyes.
They are busy tearing squares of aluminum foil. About 20 minutes later, 25 elementary school students show up.
It’s Science Friends Day.
There is a national non-profit organization called Science Buddies, but this club has nothing to do with it and its founder says the name was coincidental. Shloke Patel, a senior considering a career in bioengineering, started the local program two years ago with several of his Hillsborough IB classmates.
Seminole Elementary was eager to enroll, said physical education teacher Tyler Marsh, who is also the lead teacher for the Hillsborough Out of School Time program. They had tried to make the program less of a child care service and more of an extension of the school day, staffed with school employees and consistent with the school culture.
When Patel and his friends recruited Hillsborough physics professor Neal Mobley as their faculty sponsor, Mobley said, “I was a bit unsure of what they had planned. Were they going to go on field trips? It looked like a lot of paperwork. Then a few months passed and I got busy.
He checked with the students, “and, surprisingly, they had done it the whole time.”
Not all outdoor programs are well received by Seminole after-school children.
But the kids enjoy the Hillsborough High group. “They pitch in and love interacting with high school kids,” Marsh said. “They’re not just there to get community service hours. They really appreciate it and the kids know it. Children see through falsehood.
IB students have kept Science Buddies going despite the disruption caused by the pandemic and other small issues. Patel recalls a day when they planned an egg drop experiment. On the way to Seminole, someone accidentally dropped and broke all the eggs. They had to stretch out the explanatory part of the lesson while someone bought more eggs.
On a recent day, they showed children how to make little boats out of their aluminum squares for an activity about gravity and buoyancy. A few boats disintegrated into shards of thin foil, while others looked more like square box lids and a few looked like real boats.
“Now we’re going to put it in a bowl of water and see how many pennies it can hold,” IB student Aidan John told the children.
Water spilled and shards of aluminum foil littered the tables in the cafeteria. Some boats contained 100 cents or more. The parents arrived in the middle of the activity to pick up their children. The teenagers have adjusted by putting these students in line.
The prize for the winner: Cookies from a supermarket bakery box.
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IB programs have service hour requirements in addition to the community service students perform to earn Bright Future scholarships. But senior Akshat Guduru said, “Honestly, I’m just doing this for fun.”
Some have described a sense of relief when they enter the school, a way of recapturing the wonder they felt during their own early years of science fairs before moving on to a weekend that includes probably school work. They are so satisfied with the experience that they are writing some of the activities and will make them available to elementary science teachers in the district.
Despite his other career plans, Patel said he wouldn’t rule out becoming a teacher at some point. Mobley is something of a role model, having entered academia after earlier careers as a naval officer and then a lawyer.
No one can measure the effect Science Buddies has on the academic performance of Seminole children. This may or may not be a factor in the pass rate of students on the state science exam, which rose from 38 to 48 percent between 2021 and 2022.
In general, said Mobley, “simple science activities can teach things that are worth knowing in science class. I hope some of them will stay with them.