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Science on Saturdays

To inspire a love of science in young minds, UT students are mixing education and experimentation with a ton of fun.

Bubbles, balloons, and black lights. M&Ms, marshmallows, and paint.

To many, this could be a party shopping list. Or the beginnings of a mess. In the hands of student volunteers from UT, it’s a kit for building scientists.

The purpose of the Saturday Science Club is simple: have fun, learn something, and develop a love of science. Held once a month at Knoxville’s Pond Gap Elementary School as part of the University-Assisted Community Schools initiative, the program is run by UT Haslam Scholars with some volunteer assistance from the Society of Physics Students.

At a glance, the organized chaos of these gatherings—with up to 40 first- through fifth-grade students and 20 college volunteers—seems messy, loud, and engaging. There may be controlled eruptions, lots of slime, or bubble-soaked clothes. Some days require concentration and contemplation. Some thrive on energy. Each four-hour session includes a lesson plan, brief lectures, and group activities.

To see the true gift of Science Saturdays, you have to look beyond the enthusiasm and experimentation to the team building, interdisciplinary problem solving, out-of-the-box thinking, and increased self-esteem. A fourth grader eagerly proclaiming her ideas for building aluminum foil boats could be the same girl who is reluctant to raise a hand in class. Perhaps the fifth-grade boy who is first in line to test density with a floating egg once declared science to be his least favorite subject.

It is this type of impact that first attracted senior physics major and Haslam Scholar Louis Varriano. With only 15 students selected each year, the Haslam Scholars are a small group of outstanding undergraduates who participate in a unique curriculum focused on community. Varriano, who has been the student leader of Science Saturdays since its inception, typically spends 10 to 12 hours preparing each lesson. “The kids are so outgoing,” he stated. “It is exciting to see how engaged everyone is and to remind them of what they can do.”

According to Sylvia Turner, associate director of the Haslam Scholars Program, “It is important to be in the community where we live and learn, and to give back in a meaningful way. As a scholars program, volunteering at Pond Gap allows us to leverage our greatest asset.”

The giving back goes both ways for the student volunteers. “We all have a lot of fun,” stated Varian. “We can be so isolated at college, and this helps us maintain a sense of identity as a community.”

These Volunteers are making a difference by making science fun.

Volunteer Stories