Thursday, March 10, 2016

Free Science Classes

At the beginning of November, I had my first meeting to begin organizing the 8th annual Free Science Classes. I had heard a lot about this program, but it seemed always so far in the future. Finally the day to start planning arrived, so I jumped right in.

Free Science Class is a program started to provide schools that have a large percentage of their students on free or reduced-cost lunches the opportunity to learn about marine biology outside of their classroom. After months of emails, organizing with schools, and making sure everything was up to date, the day has finally arrived to start teaching.

From January 25 through February 26, my fellow AmeriCorps members and I taught over 600 third- and fourth-grade students about crabs and the marine birds of the Puget Sound. For children of such a young age, I was very surprised and impressed by how much these students already knew. Without any prompting, they brought up words, like "exoskeleton," that I did not learn about until college. I found there were few times that my questions went unanswered and many times students wanted to share a personal story or just about any thought that ran through their head. “I wish I could unzip MY spine and just walk backward out of it! I would leave my old body there, just like the crab," said one student. What was most memorable was when the children’s eyes grew wide with excitement as they learned something new, or when they could not control their embarrassed laughter as I told them a gross-but-cool fact about the creatures we were studying (one of my favorite things to do).

We teach the inquiry method, asking more open ended questions instead of overloading with facts. When a child learns this way, not only do they retain the material better, but it teaches them to think and figure things out on their own. I have been teaching in this style for almost two years now and it is always so wonderful to see that moment when a student connects the dots. It is also satisfying and very amusing when they continue to figure things out on their own. We had one student whose interaction with one of our volunteers was an example of a child working things out on his own, but also of some of the great quotes one hears when teaching.

This was during our class on crabs, when the students explore the touch tanks to find all the different crabs we have — a crabenger hunt as I like to call it. One child took it upon himself to identify some of our other animals in the tanks based off of the interpretive signs lining the exhibit. The child then approached our volunteer:

Child: "Can you eat the sea peach?"
Volunteer: "You can, but it wouldn’t taste like a peach. But you know, some people eat sea cucumbers." (points at sea cucumber close by)
Child: "Yeah, but I bet it doesn’t taste like a cucumber."

By the end of the program, I was able to notice a difference not only in myself as a teacher, but in the other AmeriCorps members as well. With each class, our confidence in ourselves as teachers grew. We have become more comfortable in front of a classroom and are now ready for all the teaching opportunities that lie ahead.

This has been an amazing journey for all of us, but we would never have been able to accomplish such a successful program without the help of our volunteers! Over the course of five weeks, we had over 600 students from 13 different schools walk through our doors. Our 10 wonderful volunteers put in a total of 162 hours to help with everything from setting up the classroom to breaking it down at the end of the day. We wouldn't have been able to do it without you guys! 

KATIE CONROY is the Marine Mammal Stranding Educator and an AmeriCorps member serving at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center.


  1. Way to go Katie -- thanks for the good blog! You and Rebecca and Zofie and Carolyn are amazing. Wonderful instructors all!
    Jan N

  2. PTMSC AmeriCorps members are just amazing. Their energy keeps all of us going. Thanks so much, Katie, Rebecca, Carolyn, and Zofie!
    Diane B.


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