Some unknown criminal had eaten all of Grace Eysenbach’s cupcakes.
She and her partner were on the case. They examined and classified fingerprints on the cupcake box and used chromatography to determine which colored marker was used to write a note left at the scene. Their scientific know-how paid off, and the frosting-fingered perpetrator was quickly apprehended.
The duo’s detective work was a lesson Eysenbach designed to teach a fifth-grader about colors, solutions, molecules, and scientific research methods. All in a session’s work for Eysenbach ’20, an electrical engineering concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who mentors three students at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston.
“It’s the happiest three hours of my week — getting to walk across the river and spend time in the mind of a kid, thinking about how education can be exciting,” she said. “Oftentimes, as College students, it is easy to just view education as a series of to-dos. But just to remember how much we all loved school when we were younger, and then trying to recreate that experience for our mentees, is so much fun.”
Eysenbach is one of 28 Harvard undergrads who work one-on-one with elementary, middle-, and high-school students. With guidance from Ed Portal staff and interns from the Graduate School of Education, they design unique curricula that match the interests and goals of their young charges.
Armed with a brief description of their students’ areas of interest, volunteers have access to Ed Portal resources, which include a well-equipped science room and various arts and crafts and other supplies, to use with their lessons.
“One of the challenges I face is keeping a student engaged while also challenging them,” said Julia Henry ’20, an environmental science and engineering concentrator. “It can be difficult to strike the right chord when I’m not really familiar with what a sixth-grader’s background is. But it is so helpful to work with other mentors and the resources the Ed Portal provides to keep a mentee engaged and excited.”
One of Henry’s favorite lessons is a model Earth experiment she developed to teach her student about climate change. They paint three different spheres, one covered in ice, one with ice at the poles, and one with no ice at all, to demonstrate how melting ice caps create a positive feedback loop that alters the planet’s surface temperature.
The project helped her student fulfill a semester goal of learning more about science, while enabling Henry to draw on her environmental engineering expertise. There are many challenges to building a nine-week academic plan, she said, and mentoring is about process goals, so just getting a student excited about science is well worth the effort.
Moriah Lim ’22 first became fascinated with science in grade school, thanks to the mentors who helped his robotics club. As a way to pay it forward and strengthen his engineering skills, Lim, a mechanical engineering concentrator, now co-teaches a robotics class for six sixth-graders.
It can be demanding to ensure he and his co-teacher are giving each member of the group the guidance they need while working through material that can be heavy for students with little computer science background.
But the “ah-ha” moments make it worth it. He recalls a difficult lesson where students struggled to understand the concept of computer-program loops as they tried to figure out how to make a robot move in a square. After a lot of coaching, they successfully used loops to dramatically shorten the programming process and beamed as they watched the bot move.
“That was a really cool moment,” Lim recalled. “It reminded me why our course is important. It teaches them different engineering and programming skills, but also logical thinking skills that can be applied to many different areas, in their other classes or even in their future careers. Getting them interested and excited about robotics and electronics is really cool.”
But what happens if a student isn’t interested in a mentor’s area of expertise?
Caroline Ko ’20, an environmental science and engineering concentrator, has been working far out of her comfort zone on arts and crafts projects and creative writing assignments. She ties the material to STEM when she can, but has surprised herself by how much she has learned through the lessons.
Creating engaging and memorable lessons for students is no mean feat, especially when they are also mired in homework and extracurricular activities. It emphasizes the struggles K-12 teachers face in the classroom every day, she said.
One of Ko’s most rewarding moments came during a creative writing session. She and her student free-wrote in silence for 10 minutes, journaling about something they knew would never happen to them. Ko wrote about flying a spaceship to the moon, while her mentee wrote about piloting a submarine deep into the ocean.
“We were both surprised by how well that assignment went for each of us. In both of our curriculums, in the classes we take, there isn’t really time to do an activity like that, where you just take time to free-write, share, and reflect on it,” she said. “It was so interesting to dissect our different pieces and talk about our trains of thought while we were writing. That experience emphasized to me that it can be worthwhile to do something completely new, or something you wouldn’t expect to do.”
Those pleasant surprises are the greatest rewards of mentoring, Eysenbach said.
As she walks back across the bridge to Cambridge each Wednesday evening, her mind buzzes with the material they worked through that afternoon. No matter how many half-finished p-sets are waiting back in her dorm, those bright spots put a spring in her step.
“Mentoring really does remind me why I started loving engineering in the first place,” she said. “In classes, a lot of times they are more theory-based, and your eyes can start to glaze over while you’re hearing a lecture. But when you see your mentee finally understand how a closed circuit lights up a light bulb, that is just incredible. It inspires me to try and find that joy in my own engineering classes.”