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McKay School students teach science lessons at South Franklin Community Center

Read Time: 3 minutes

Within the cheery art-covered walls of South Franklin Community Center, the people of south Provo find resources, programs, and a sense of community. One of the center’s major benefits is an after-school STEM club run by BYU McKay School professor Ryan Nixon.

The STEM Club is held once a week at the community center, and about 15–20 students aged 4 to 14 attend regularly. According to Stephanie Anderson, South Franklin Community Center director, the STEM Club is one of the community center’s most popular classes. The club provides enrichment activities for students and contributes to lessening a considerable achievement gap in STEM for underserved populations.

Student at STEM Club makes Oobleck
Student at STEM Club makes Oobleck

The teachers of the club, current McKay School elementary education students, plan lessons around the students’ interests and cover a wide variety of topics including aviation, agriculture, anatomy, engineering, and chemistry.

“A program like this is great because it is a service to the community and helps the kids that attend—but it is also beneficial for McKay School students,” says Nixon. “Not only do they have a job, but they are getting teaching experience.”

Two McKay School elementary education students at a time plan lessons and teach for the program. In addition, a lead teacher has been running the STEM Club program for about a year now.

“My coworkers and I have had to learn how to create lessons that will be engaging for children of all ages,” says Elizabeth Tagg, a McKay School student who has been teaching at the center since August 2021. “I've grown a lot in my scientific knowledge as well as in my love for science.”

McKay School student Emily Zumwalt says the club is unique as a teaching experience: “In having students who range from ages 4­­ to 14 years old, we have had to be accommodating in our lesson planning to have our lesson reach all ages.”

Student watches drone from BYU Drone Club visit
Student watches drone from BYU Drone Club visit

Both Tagg and Zumwalt say they focus their lessons on interactive learning and experiments. “With each of these experiments, we want the children to be learning, not through direct instruction, but through observations they find,” Zumwalt says.

In a recent social media takeover, Tagg shared one lesson that taught students about the rock cycle by using Starbursts candy. Students manipulated their Starbursts through all the steps of the cycle, including melding them together to form simulated “metamorphic rock,” melting them into “magma,” and cooling the melted candy into “igneous rock.”

That level of creativity is pretty standard, according to Zumwalt: “Some of my favorite experiments have been a simulation space mission where the students needed to rescue someone trapped on Mars, attending the BYU Paleontology Museum and learning about different dinosaurs and how people have found them in the rocks, and building our very own Rube Goldberg machines.”

While these experiments and activities may seem simply to be a fun pastime for club attendees, the STEM Club may help to bridge a worrying achievement gap. Research has shown that, while students in underserved populations—minority, low-income, and/or first-generation college students—express the same interest in STEM subjects and careers as the overall student population, their achievement levels lag far behind those of other demographic groups.

Students at the STEM club trace their upper body
Students at the STEM club trace their upper body

A report on STEM subjects and underserved learners by American College Testing determined that students with just one underserved characteristic show lower readiness for STEM studies than their peers. Students with two characteristics have STEM readiness that is 20 percent lower than average, and when all three characteristics are present, the rate is 34 percent lower.

Groups like the STEM Club are helping to bridge that achievement gap, one Starburst-filled lesson at a time. Club members not only have fun, but also prepare for their academic futures.

“The participants enjoy exploring STEM-related activities, problem solving, being physically active, and learning!” Stephanie Anderson says. “The activities are well prepared, the staff is knowledgeable, and they have provided field trips and family activities.”

After-school science sessions are opportunities to learn and grow not only for children in Provo, but also for future educators. “I encourage every BYU student to find different ways you can serve in the community,” Zumwalt says. “Knowing these students has blessed my life.”

Writer: Savannah Kimzey

Contact: Cindy Glad