Summer Science on Wheels

Bradbury educators get crafty at Española elementary schools

By Micaela Hester | July 6, 2021

Science on Wheels

Can you protect a teddy bear from an earthquake? Create a one-of-a-kind critter from a DNA code? Use your body’s energy to power up Christmas lights? The Summer Science on Wheels students can.

School may be on break but children still need fun and educational activities to keep them engaged and connected — particularly as they emerge from a year of virtual classes and re-adjust to in-person learning. Determined to thrill budding scientists, Bradbury Science Museum’s educators Mel Strong, Chelsea Redman and intern Denisse Lerma traveled to six Española district elementary schools with the Summer Science on Wheels program, bringing creative hands-on activities for kindergarten through sixth-grade students.

A return to learning in-person

“We want to expose them to science and have fun — really ignite their excitement,” Redman says.

Summer Science on Wheels is part of the schools’ 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. This is an out-of-school-time program offered to students free of charge through grant funds. It offers academic, leadership and enrichment opportunities for students and families, particularly in under-resourced educational districts.

This is the second year the Bradbury team has conducted Summer Science on Wheels in person, having had a hiatus during the pandemic. “It’s great to see some of the same teachers and some of the same kids from the original year,” says Strong. Adds Redman, “It’s priceless to be there with the kids and do activities with them that aren’t on a screen. They’ve had a hard year.”

The educators provided three visits to each school group over three weeks, visiting on the same day each week, providing a welcoming consistency for the children. Says Strong, “Many kids will tell us ‘Thursdays are my favorite day,’ because they know that Thursday is ‘the science day.’”

Lerma, who studies early childhood education at Northern New Mexico College, was instrumental in preparing the activities for Summer Science on Wheels, and for connecting with the students. “It was surprising to me to see that some students were having trouble following instructions in English. I took the time to explain the steps in Spanish to each student individually. They were very happy to have someone who speaks their language and to be able to understand the instructions of the engineering project. It was very rewarding to see their happy faces after achieving their goals.”

Do stuff and see what happens

The first week’s activity focused on engineering. Kids had to build a structure out of materials like straws and pipe cleaners that would withstand an “earthquake,” gleefully replicated with a shake table. Their engineered structures also had to hold the “borse” — a teddy bear in a horse costume — without collapsing.

The next lesson centered on life sciences. The kids made models of cells and DNA with Play-Doh and beads. Some of the older students had the chance to “read” DNA to create their own chimera critter. Redman explains, “If they had AT-TA-GC-CG for the first set of nucleotides, this would determine the head shape, then the eyes, nose, mouth, which corresponded to different animal parts. They could choose a dog head with a hippo nose, for example.” She adds, “The energy from the kids is great — ‘Wow! What happens if I do this? That?’ The exploration is what makes it exciting.”

The final week’s activities involved circuits. First the kids had to be the power supply for hand-cranked generators to light up segments of Christmas lights and get motors with propellers to spin. Next, they crafted a paper generator with copper tape, bendable LED lights and a 3-volt battery.

Strong, the mastermind of the circuit projects, is certain this was the students’ top choice. “We had the students vote, and the circuits were their favorite activity. The challenge was: how many things can you can get to work at once, simultaneously? It’s a build-your-own circuit free-for-all. There aren’t really any rules, just do stuff and see what happens.”

Keepsakes and takeaways

For each week’s lesson, the educators made sure the students had finished projects to take home, their proud souvenirs of achievement. The materials for the Summer Science on Wheels activities were provided through support from the Bradbury Science Museum Association and Enterprise Bank and Trust. “We’re so thankful for their generosity,” says Redman.

Lerma says, “Before starting my internship, I never imagined that Los Alamos National Laboratory was so involved with the community. (Through Summer Science on Wheels) I believe that LANL is doing a great job helping these students to develop their love for science.”

Redman sums up the joy of the summer program: “We love being in the classroom and watching the kids get excited, have fun and understand that science is so hands-on in real life.”

The program will head to the Embudo Public Library later this month. Learn how to bring Summer Science on Wheels to a summer class near you.