The seventh-grade students waited with anxious anticipation. What would the lab results show for the objects they had swabbed? They definitely didn’t expect the toilet to have less bacteria than their own mouths.
Since 2009, The College of Idaho and the Caldwell School District have worked in conjunction to offer the week-long Math and Science Summer Institute (MASSI) for seventh- and eighth-grade middle school students. The institute, which operates this year from June 1-5, promotes taking math and science classes in high school and pursuing a STEM career.
“Kids are really interested in math and science in elementary school, and then something happens in middle school,” said Dr. Robin Cruz, chair of the C of I mathematics and physical sciences department. “The aim of the program was for kids who had a high potential of going on to college, but also a high risk of not graduating high school.”
Last year, 40 boys and 40 girls from Syringa and Jefferson middle schools were chosen to take part in the program. The seventh graders became “disease detectives.” They designed their own survey and ventured around campus, interviewing College of Idaho staff and faculty members about their fictitious diseases. The students then used that information to calculate the most likely cause of the fictitious disease.
The eighth graders did a computer science project, working on circuits and computer coding in order to build their own computer. At the end of the week, both groups presented what they learned.
“It is a phenomenal experience to see a shy kid transform over the week, and by the end, give a PowerPoint presentation on a complicated subject,” Cruz said.
In addition to generating interest in math and science, the program gives middle-school-aged-kids the chance to step onto a college campus and see that it’s not a “scary place,” but something to strive for, said College of Idaho biology professor Dr. Ann Koga.
The kids get to interact with college students, especially on Ask the Teacher’s Assistant Day, where the kids ask questions ranging from how to afford college to what it is like to live in the dorms. The eighth graders also stay one night in a residence hall.
“It is fun to show [the students] something new, get them interested in (science and math), and also give them a taste of what college is like,” College of Idaho senior Juan Cervantes said. “I think the earlier you can get that thought of college into their heads, the better.”
The institute came about as part of a grant proposal that Cruz and Koga wrote. The grant money wasn’t awarded, but the principal at Syringa saw the institute’s potential and said, “let’s do it anyway,” Cruz said.
After the program started, it was funded through grants. But for the last two years, the grants have run dry and the Caldwell School District has footed the bill. Last year, Cruz wasn’t sure the program would happen at all, but the money came together.
“It’s really a collaborative effort with the school district,” she said.
While watching her own children and their friends go through the Caldwell School District, Koga realized that any type of encouragement for students would be helpful.
“The Caldwell School District does everything it can to reach all the kids, but the need is great in Caldwell,” Koga said.
And contact with an adult who cares can make a difference to a kid in pursuing higher education, Cruz said. With that in mind, The College of Idaho and the Caldwell School District hope to continue impacting children’s lives for years to come.