It’s, some teenagers say, a highlight of their week.
They arrive at Seminole Elementary School at 4 p.m. on a Friday, lugging pennies, disposable baking pans and rolls of thin aluminum files.
They’re International Baccalaureate students at Hillsborough High School, which means life is often a stress bath. Student Crystal Cooper describes one of the day’s IB exams: “It was the easiest test we’ve had so far,” and the others just roll their eyes.
They are busy tearing off foil squares. About 20 minutes later, 25 elementary school students line up.
It’s Science Friends Day.
There is a national non-profit organization called Science Buddies, but this club is unrelated and its founder says the name is random. Shloke Patel, a senior eyeing a career in bioengineering, started the local program two years ago along with several of his Hillsborough IB classmates.
Seminole Elementary was keen to enroll, said physical education teacher Tyler Marsh, who is also the lead teacher at the Hillsborough Out of School Time program. They had attempted to make the program less of a babysitting service and more of an extension of the school day, staffed by school staff and consistent with school culture.
When Patel and his friends hired Hillsborough physics teacher Neal Mobley as a faculty sponsor, Mobley said, “I wasn’t sure what they had planned. Did you want to go on excursions? That sounded like a lot of paperwork. Then a few months passed and I got busy.”
He got in touch with the students, “and lo and behold, they’ve been doing this all along.”
Not all outside programs are welcomed by Seminole’s out-of-school children.
But the kids appreciate the Hillsborough High group. “They jump in and love interacting with the high school kids,” Marsh said. “They’re not just there to get community service hours. They really enjoy it and the kids know it. Children see through the fake.”
IB students have kept Science Buddies running despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic and other, smaller disruptions. Patel remembers one day when they planned an egg drop experiment. On the way to Seminole, someone accidentally dropped and broke all the eggs. They had to extend the explanatory part of the lesson while someone bought more eggs.
They recently showed the kids how to make little boats out of their foil squares for an activity about gravity and buoyancy. A few boats crumbled into shards of thin foil, while others looked more like rectangular box lids, and some resembled real boats.
“Now we’re going to put it in a bowl of water and see how many pennies it can hold,” IB student Aidan John told the children.
Water splashed and fragments of foil lay on the cafeteria tables. Some boats contained 100 pfennigs or more. The parents arrived in the middle of the activity to pick up their children. The teenagers conformed by pushing these students into line.
The prize for the winner: cookies from a supermarket bakery box.
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For the other students — biscuits too.
IB programs have service hour requirements in addition to the community service that students must provide to earn Bright Future Scholarships. But Senior Akshat Guduru said, “Honestly, I’m just doing this for fun.”
Some described a sense of relief upon entering the school, a way of recapturing the wonder they felt in their own early science fair years, before tuning down to a weekend that likely involved schoolwork. They are so pleased with the experience that they are writing down some of the activities and making them available to the district elementary school teachers.
Despite his other career plans, Patel said he hasn’t ruled out becoming a teacher at some point. Mobley is something of a role model, having entered the classroom after previous careers as a naval officer and then a lawyer.
No one can measure the effect Science Buddies has on the academic performance of Seminole children. That may be a factor in students’ pass rate on the state science exam, which rose from 38 percent to 48 percent between 2021 and 2022.
In general, Mobley said, “simple science activities can teach things that are worth knowing in science class. I hope some of that stays with them.”