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The Science Bug: Reed Students Bring “Mad Science” to Portland Public Schools

Lewis Elementary School teacher Sylvia Jen’s fifth-graders squirm with excitement as their Reed student teachers pass out candy-colored safety goggles. The attention of the 28 pupils is directed to the three Reedies, preparing to lead a chemistry experiment in which pre-measured ingredients are combined in clear plastic bags.

“Okay,” says Cole Perkinson ’13, a chemistry/physics major. “Science is about observation. What do we observe happening in the bags?”

“It’s changing color!” squeals one little girl.

“It’s fizzing!” shouts another.

“The bag is warming up,” a boy adds.

“Very good,” Cole says. “These are all signs that a chemical reaction is occurring.”

Every week Cole, Lisa Hiura ’14, and Erin Kleinfeld ’13, show Jen’s class that science is a fun way to learn about the world. The trio is part of the Reed Science Outreach Program, which has been bringing the thrill of scientific inquiry to Portland schoolkids for more than 20 years. When the program began in 1991, it was geared for high school students. Reed faculty redeveloped the program so that Reed students could take the lessons to elementary schools as a benefit for both teachers and pupils.

“I actually learn things about science working with the kids, because they approach ideas with fresh minds,” Cole says. “This has been an indispensable aspect of my Reed education.”

Biology professor Robert Kaplan put a lot of energy into creating the program. “Some of us in the department had kids in elementary school and we saw what could be possible with them,” he says. “We knew they would be receptive.”

The program was an instant hit. Demand for the program was so great that the focus narrowed to schools with higher populations of disadvantaged students. Since then, roughly 400 Reed students have taught science to nearly 10,000 schoolchildren. This year, the chemistry and biology programs were merged to form the Reed Science Outreach Program. Roughly 42 Reed students offer science lessons in 19 classrooms in six Portland schools, grades four through seven. The program’s curriculum is aligned with state and national science standards.

Several times a year Jen’s class tours the Reed campus, including making a visit to the nuclear reactor.

“The program gives [the fifth-graders] a chance to see people who are really enthused about science,” Jen says. Parents tell her their children have developed a newfound interest in science.

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