Nineteen first graders sit in blue plastic chairs in a classroom decorated with bright colors and animal posters. With their light-up sneakers dangling in the air beneath them, they listen as Kevin Keller, a senior Chinese major at Arizona State University, poses the mystery of the day.
“OK, detectives,” he says, smiling from the front of the classroom. “How do airplanes fly?”
Instantly, a flurry of tiny hands shoots up into the air, followed by a series of excited shouts and giggles. Keller waits until they settle down and points to a little boy in a dark blue shirt.
“Because the air in the sky!” the boy announces, as though the five ASU students standing in his classroom at Broadmor Elementary should certainly know that by now.
“Well, the air in the sky is definitely a part of it, but today we’ll use science to learn why,” Keller says, and begins to pass out their official Science Detective color-coded folders.
Again, there’s a chorus of high-pitched voices, but this time, Keller steps down and watches as his team of four takes charge and begins to lead the day’s lesson. These are the members of Science Detectives, and they’re not your everyday student leaders.
Science Detectives is an after-school education program that focuses on bringing dedicated ASU students to elementary schools in Tempe once a week to teach interactive science lessons.
“I wanted to start Science Detectives as a method of testing possible improvements to the education system and as a way of giving ASU students the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the education system and practice leadership in a real world environment,” says Keller, the founder of Science Detectives.
Last spring, Science Detectives won the Innovation Challenge award, gaining thousands of dollars to use toward its unique and inventive academic goal.
“Each lesson starts with a mystery based on a real world observation, like ‘How do planes fly?’ ‘Why do we need two ears?’ or ‘How do fish float?’” Keller says. “The kids then divide into groups of four or five and work with an ASU student to solve it through an experiment.”
So far, Science Detectives has been picked up by two Tempe schools – Rover and Broadmor Elementary. The program is held once a week, and the ASU students work with the same group of children throughout the entire semester. And though the program itself is only entering its second year, it has already made a huge impact in the ASU community.
“In one year, we went from an idea in the head of my friends and I to two schools, five classes, 120 students, and more than $5,000,” Keller says.
But what is perhaps most impressive about Science Detectives is its members – they’re mostly underclassmen. In fact, not only are 20 of the 30 members freshmen and sophomores, but several of those underclassmen hold crucial leadership positions.
Economics major Jennifer Brandon may only be in her first year at ASU, but she’s already been appointed to Treasurer.
“Being an officer for Science Detectives is exciting for me,” Brandon says. “As a freshman I didn’t think I would have the chance to have that opportunity. It is almost like an extra way to help out an amazing program while getting leadership experience.”
And she’s not the only one. Sophomore chemical engineering major Stephanie Maxwell isn’t just a sophomore – she’s a Science Detectives Team Leader, just like Keller.
“I am in charge of leading two to three lessons myself and making sure each member has a lesson planned for their week of teaching,” Maxwell says. “I also help keep the classroom in order and review previous lessons at the beginning and end of each class.”
And in Maxwell’s opinion, this sense of underclassmen leadership is an essential aspect of the program as a whole.
“Because everyone has some kind of leadership role in science detectives, it is a great way for anyone to practice their leadership skills, not just the Team Leader,” she says. “I also hope my experience as a Team Leader will help keep the club going strong once the upperclassmen graduate.”
And judging by Science Detectives’ success, the young education-outreach program will only continue to thrive in the years to come, thanks to Keller’s original dream and the team’s dedicated leadership.
By the end of Monday’s class, the room is littered with paper airplanes and children’s smiles. As the kids begin to pack up until next week’s lesson, they stop and turn to hug their ASU Science Detectives team member. After a day filled with observations, experiments, and growing relationships between students from both university and elementary, Keller calls out one last question: what do we say detectives?
And in a chorus of excited voices, 19 happy first graders call right back to him: “Case closed!”
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