Science for the ages

Local teens teach grade-schoolers at all-day event
By Stina Sieg | Dec 12, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg

CANTON — If you know third-graders, you know that keeping their attention is not an easy task — but it's no bed of nails. Usually.

Last Friday, Pisgah High School's Greg Tucker laid down on an actual bed of nails, not only for the delight of the youngsters crowded around him, but for a cause he holds dear. The science teacher was demonstrating the effects of diffusion, but more importantly trying to spark a passion for his favorite subject in students from Clyde, Bethel, Meadowbrook and North Canton elementary schools. From the looks on the little, happy faces eagerly watching Tucker's experiment (sacrifice?) in Pisgah's gym, it seemed to be working.

With only a towel under his head of corkscrew curls, he dramatically grimaced as a boy in his honors physics class placed a cement block on his stomach. As the children placed their hand over their ears, the teen then brought down a sledge hammer just hard enough to break the block. The little students went wild, clapping and literally squealing with delight. Tucker leapt up, beaming. Though his young audience would never know it, he had never actually attempted that until that very moment.

"I knew it would work — I just hadn't ever done it before," he admitted. "So let's do it front of a bunch of third-graders."

And it was quite a bunch. More than 200 children attended the day, which also included eight science-based learning stations throughout the gym. Tucker laid himself out on the nails no fewer than four times.

He wanted to show these students that "science can be fun," he said, "and give them role models beyond football players, because they never see this aspect of high school."

Things are changing, though. Thanks to the new Common Core State Standards Initiative — teaching benchmarks agreed to by the majority of U.S. sates — more in-depth teaching of science is now required in North Carolina elementary schools. The idea, Tucker explained, is to not only give students a more solid foundation in science from an early age, but to get them "fired up" to learn more.

"It's really going to benefit us," Tucker said, speaking for high school science teachers throughout the county. "Kids will come to us more prepared."

And more motivated, if 8-year-old Tré Goodman is any indication. Though the North Canton student seemed to enjoy the homemade hovercraft, pulley and sound experiments, he smiled excitedly when he mentioned Tucker's uncomfortable bed. When asked what he thought about science now, his eagerness was over the top.

"I think it's really, really cool," he gushed, "because I can't wait to get to high school so I can really do science."

Goodman doesn't just have Tucker to thank for this little break, as Tucker's 12 honors physics students arguably played the biggest role in the day. They constructed all of the learning stations themselves, mostly after school. The seniors (and one junior) also manned each station throughout the event, walking their younger counterparts through the various steps of each experiment and demo.

Tucker explained that a project like this, where students teach others, is not required by the Common Core, but it does fit into the new standards neatly.

"Part of the core curriculum is not just knowing the right answers but being able to explain how they got the right answers," he said.

For Pisgah students like Luke Dillard, 17, this first-time event was a chance to do exactly that — and also build some pretty enviable experiments. He and fellow honors student Ethan Ward had quickly constructed the hovercraft that slid across the gym floor on a cushion of air.

"When you teach something, it's just that you have to think about it," he said. "You really have to have an understanding."

That's part of why he thinks this first-ever event was a "really good idea," he said, but this extra bit of comprehension for him and his classmates isn't the only reason. He explained that growing up in Atlanta, science, which he now loves, was hardly taught in elementary school. By taking part in this learning experience, he felt he was giving these young children the chance he never got.

"I'm really glad we had the opportunity to get kids excited about science and math," he said.

Their enthusiasm was clear to Dillard and his classmates, but especially to Tucker, who stressed how happy he was at all the "smiles and giggles." As a science teacher, he's always looking for that.

"I love seeing kids excited about learning," he said, with his own excitement shining through his big grin.


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