Math, Science & Fun

Elementary Students Learn the Attraction at Jefferson Lab

Joelle Borden and Candace Lassiter, both 10 years old, want to be doctors - pediatricians, to be exact.

The two fifth-graders at Hampton's Wythe Elementary School like babies. They are less enthusiastic about math and science, even though they know the two subjects are necessary to most medical professions.

"With math, all we do is write down a problem on a piece of paper and try to solve it," Candace said with disdain.

Last week the two girls and the rest of their class went to Jefferson Lab, where they performed science experiments and figured out math problems. Joelle and Candace giggled at falling paper clips as they tried to calculate the average number a magnet could pick up. They looked serious as they discussed which was more powerful, 4.5 volts or 6 volts.

The science and math lab was part of a week-long program called Becoming Enthusiastic About Math and Science, or BEAMS. The program began in 1991 as a class for Hampton and Newport News fifth- and sixth-graders. This year, BEAMS expanded to include the seventh grade and next year will add the eighth. More than 1,400 students went through the BEAMS program this school year.

BEAMS was developed by the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, to interest students in math and science and to keep them from becoming intimidated as more difficult concepts are introduced in high school. Jefferson Lab is the Department of Energy's national laboratory for nuclear physics research.

"This program takes the fear away from the kids," said Al Guerra, a mechanical engineer at the facility who teaches in the program. "We use simple language, and we take the time to explain things. We use stories and personal experiences to help the kids relate science to their own lives."

At BEAMS, students learn about momentum by seeing how slowly they can ride a bicycle without touching the ground. They learn how heat and cold are conducted by playing with ice water and thermometers. And they learn how an accelerator works by passing tennis balls down a line quickly, slowly and with their eyes shut.

"Look at them. They are smiling," said Sandra Harlan, gesturing to her fifth-grade class working on the magnet experiment. "Math and science aren't a breeze for everyone. But they are excited here. They are on task."

BEAMS is not the only educational program organized by Jefferson Lab. About 7,500 students a year, including children from Williamsburg and York County, attend classes at the Newport News facility. But unlike BEAMS, most of the other programs are one-day events.

In Hampton, fifth-grade classes are chosen to attend the BEAMS program on a rotating schedule. In Newport News, most sixth- and seventh-grade classes at Crittenden and Huntington middle schools spend a week at BEAMS.

Crittenden was chosen because it is a science and technology magnet. Huntington was chosen because it has a large population of students from low-income households.

"We try to target students that typically wouldn't have this experience otherwise," said Janet Tyler, science education manager at the lab.

Although scientists from Jefferson Lab volunteer their time to conduct the classes, school districts pay about $20 per student for supplies. Thomasena Woods, supervisor of science for Newport News schools, said the cost is worth the experience, and is excited that eighth-graders will be able to continue the program next year.

"The first year they go, it just whets their appetite," Woods said. "The more you can reinforce these activities, the more likely they are to take the higher-level classes later on."