By Cooper-John Trapp, Staff Writer
The 4H STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Ambassadors is a program putting college students in classrooms to teach children about science in an engaging and inspiring manner. The program was started five years ago by Sarah Sparks, a science education professional at UMAINE Cooperative Extension, the program, which is unique to the University of Maine system, is a network of partnerships between universities and the communities they foster.
Hands-on, interactive scientific exploration projects are facilitated by the student educators with household items like aluminum foil, marshmallows and food dye to foster curiosity and interest in the STEM field among young students.
This year, over 50 USM students took part in the program. Last year, 49 students volunteered 980 hours of service and reached 500 youth in the area. The 4H STEM Ambassadors at USM is run by Lauren Porter, a junior social work and political science major and student associate in the Office of Service-Learning and Volunteering.
Sites can be selected from anywhere in the state of Maine— within walking distance from USM, convenient to the bus line in Portland or all the way up in Fort Kent. Common sites for this program include classrooms, after-school programs or youth-serving agencies like the Boy’s and Girl’s clubs, the Portland housing authority, Gorham Recreation and public libraries.
Each lesson typically leads off with a 10 minute introduction, followed by 40 minutes of the hands-on project and then 10 minutes to synthesize the lesson. The 4H STEM Ambassador program primarily counsels third through fifth grade children, but the program is can be used with children up to the eighth grade level.
Participants are expected to prepare their curriculum for an hour each week during the program, which lasts for the first six weeks of each semester. Overall, the total time commitment for students over the six weeks is about 20 hours.
Taylor Canastra, a biology and secondary education major and former STEM Ambassador, says, “Going into it I was wary because I didn’t really know anything about offshore winds but they made it very easy for us. The kit you get has everything you will need in it including a binder with lesson plans/activities to do with the kids utilizing the materials provided… .”
Students with any major can take part in this, because the program focuses on not just science but creativity, critical thinking and group collaboration. David Champlin, chair of the biology department, stated that, “consequently, some non-science majors are some of the best participants.”
Monique Butoto, a former participant, adds, “This project has helped me in a short period of time to learn how to adapt quickly in an environment that challenges one to be patient but also strategic.”
Champlin was an early adopter of the program. When Sparks brought the program to USM, he was there at the first meeting they had. “I connected immediately,” Champlin says, and has included it as an option in his classes ever since.
More than half of the over 50 USM students involved come from service-learning integrated classes, like Champlin’s.
Often, however, students and professors have concerns about taking up the program in their course because of, “this hurdle, the notion of ‘that’s gonna be a lot of work and I’m already buried, I’m already going full-tilt,’” Champlin explained. However, Champlin elaborated that the Office of Service-Learning and Volunteering exists to help students with the work.
USM professors can incorporate the program as an option in their class. For example, a professor could offer for students to participate in the 4H STEM Ambassadors program instead of taking a mid-term. Which, Champlin points out, equals less papers to grade, saving them time.
Ultimately, he stated, “It’s a professor’s job to provide these excellent maximum value educational experiences, and the fact that a staff member is here makes it easy for professors to do a great job.”
The mentors themselves grow, too. Champlin says, “When USM students study in college, they are beginning learners, which is scary. But, in the grade schools they are the experts.” Champlin continued, “Some students think they are shy, but when in a position to do so, they find its actually just a lack of experience. And with that practice they soon become comfortable.”
For student’s unsure of their future career, being a 4H STEM ambassador gives them the opportunity to explore. Some students who are current science majors decide to be teachers after getting involved, while others, as a result of working with youth, strongly conclude the opposite. The value of college is the opportunity to explore careers to try and see which you like, Champlin adds.
If students are nervous about fitting anything else into their schedule on top of classes and employment, there are various options such as programs on the weekends or during the evenings. Students can pick sites per their schedules and get reimbursed for transportation costs.
Anyone interested in participating in the program can contact the Office of Service-Learning and Volunteering at: usm.maine.edu/service-learning-volunteering/4-h-stem-ambassadors or in person at 4 Payson-Smith.