Children gathered last week at the South Philadelphia Library, where they dabbled with Lego blocks, cereal and stockings.
The curious concoction, though, was not merely a chance for playtime but rather experimentation of the human body.
Marking its 33rd annual event, GSK, a science-led global healthcare company, and the Franklin Institute have once again reprised GSK Science in the Summer – a series of free educational enrichment programs for children in second to sixth grades hosted at libraries across Philadelphia and its neighboring counties.
Running throughout the summer, the program is expected to reach 5,000 children in the Greater Philadelphia region at 152 local library sites this year, striving to fill any gaps in students’ science education taught during the academic year, including among low-income and underserved communities.
“We don’t try to hit one specific goal over the head,” said GSK Science in the Summer instructor Jonathan Nguyen. “We really try to lay out a lot of avenues for kids to access it…It’s asking questions about science, and it’s possible that kids have never had a positive science experience.”
Celebrating his 15th year working with the program, Nguyen, a high school anatomy and physiology teacher with the Pennsauken, New Jersey school district, says he’s noticed the GSK Science in the Summer curriculum changing as science has evolved over more than the last decade.
Specifically, the recent emergence of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) academic disciplines has relatively shifted the objective of the program in an effort to prepare students for newly developed careers – or even jobs that have yet to be created.
“The idea, in the beginning, was to just simply provide some science experiences and education over the summer,” Nguyen said. “And now, it’s really kind of morphed into ‘How do we provide some constructive science experiences for kids and give them information? How do we educate them about STEM careers?’ ”
Brainstormed by GSK and the Franklin Institute, activities and lessons for summer programming revolve around a new theme each year.
The 2019 focus is “The Science of Me,” which surrounds the study of the human body.
Delving into various biological systems, students at the South Philadelphia Branch spent two days engaging in activities that explore the digestive system, the heart, brain, blood and DNA.
Nguyen says the overall objective is not necessarily engraining anatomy terminology into their brains but rather allow the elementary and middle schoolers to understand how their bodies work and possibly become more conscious of their diets in the process.
“What’s very surprising, sometimes, is the lack of understanding that kids have about their bodies – about why we eat food or what does our heart do,” he said. “A lot of really basic things that ultimately will impact their health decisions – their everyday decisions…When there’s that breakdown, then, of course, that’s going to color their decisions about what to eat. So, it’s really nice to see this kind of education for them.”
Last week’s sessions at the Newbold branch included four 45-minute lessons over the course of two days – one session for students in second to third grade and another for students in fourth to sixth grade.
The fourth- to sixth-grade session welcomed about a dozen students hailing from across the area – all with varying levels of science experiences.
Some participants say they receive limited opportunities to perform experiments in their local public and charter schools.
“We needed to learn more about science,” said 9-year-old Diomond Thomas. “I wanted to see what we were going to do for science, and I wanted to see new people. When I came here, I wanted to be a scientist, too.”
“I just wanted to learn more,” added 9-year-old Naseehah Brewington. “My mom said someday when I grow up, I might be a scientist.”
The budding researchers say they particularly liked an activity involving crushed Chex cereal, cornstarch and water – a mixture to represent the digestive system.
However, seeing photos of the human esophagus were slightly more jarring.
“It scarred me for life,” said 11-year-old Ethan Adamslynch.
While the program is only two days long, Nguyen hopes his students simply enjoy learning science in an environment outside of the traditional classroom among new children.
Though the experiments are not quantitative, GSK Science in the Summer, Nguyen says, aims to inspire kids to ask more questions, consider the concept of cause and effect, and overall give them a tighter grasp on the everyday workings of the world.
“We hope that it just starts to open doors to kids asking more questions and being interested in these kinds of topics…Them understanding those scientific principles is more versatile and more long-lasting than any individual piece of content that I could be telling them,” Nguyen said. “That’s the underlying stress of the curriculum.”