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Brown Science Prep takes students to Mars

Weekly tutoring program engages high schoolers in interactive activities, creative lessons

About 45 high school students visiting Brown on Saturday walked on the surface of Mars, landed in a crater and suddenly found themselves on the surface of the moon. The students never left the Yurt Ultimate Reality Theatre, where they were able to experience these places as Johannes Novotny GS switched through the machine’s images.

The YURT visit was organized as part of Brown Science Prep, a weekly tutoring program that meets Saturdays in Barus and Holley. The program aims to “get high school students around the state excited about science through interactive activities and creative lessons,” said Joey Botros ’16, a coordinator of BSP and a biology concentrator.

Founded 15 years ago, BSP grew out of the Swearer Center for Public Service, Botros said. The program now has 18 undergraduate mentors and around 100 affiliated high school students, who attend the two-hour sessions voluntarily after a brief application process, he said. Mentors design lesson plans covering a variety of fields in science, he added.

This week’s trip to the YURT was integrated into an astronomy lesson. The YURT uses 69 projectors, satellite imagery and 3D data to immerse users in spaces such as the topography of Mars and virtual reality paintings, Novotny said.

Back in the classroom, the mentors used charts, images, videos and other graphic representations to teach students about basic astronomy, with a focus on topics such as dark matter, stars and planets.

The mentors are allowed to develop lessons around any topics they are passionate about, Botros said. Each week, the mentors pair up to plan or edit a lesson, which can be as long as 15 pages, said Ryan Bahar ’18, a BSP mentor.

The mentors design every lesson to be different from any taught before, Bahar said, adding that one of his favorite demonstrations enabled students to see an MRI machine as part of a neuroscience lesson.

Karen Gutierrez ’17, another BSP mentor, said one of her favorite demonstrations involved using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream as part of a lesson on chemistry and phase changes.

“The most important part of BSP is to be as engaging as possible,” Bahar said. “Our lessons are very interdisciplinary because our mentors come from a diverse range of backgrounds.”

BSP draws high school students at all education levels to the weekly lessons.

Maria Calderon, a freshman at Cranston High School East who participates in BSP and plans to attend medical school one day, said she enjoys the hands-on activities BSP offers.

One benefit of the program is that it exposes students to scientific fields that are not usually taught in high schools, said Brian Zhen, a junior at Cranston East, who is interested in astronomy and physics.

Randy Duran, also a junior at Cranston East, said he hopes attending the program will help him figure out what he wants to pursue in the future.

But it is not just the high school students who benefit from BSP.

“Taking science classes day to day at (Brown), it’s easy to forget how much you like science,” Bahar said. “But every Saturday when I teach a lesson, seeing the kids be so enthusiastic reminds me of why I continue to study science.”

Teaching the students also helps the mentors develop learning strategies that they can apply in their own lives, Gutierrez said.

“When I was teaching the neuroscience lesson, at first it was hard for me because I didn’t know how to simplify (the material),” Gutierrez said, adding that having to explain the concepts in a more basic and understandable manner helped her as both a teacher and a student.

The mentors learn about other fields as well through their participation in BSP, Bahar said. As a potential neuroscience concentrator, he has experience with the brain but knows little about computer science or space, he said.

Knowledge gained from the program is not restricted to science. Before each lesson begins, students have the opportunity to bond with their mentors for half an hour and receive any guidance they need, said Sandra Chang ’17, a BSP mentor. Mentors provide advice on topics such as college life and scholarship opportunities, Bahar said.

“For me, (BSP) is the perfect combination of getting science, advising and mentoring and getting to know lots of students,” Chang said.


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