Five graduate students from the Mercyhurst University Secondary Education program used a $3,700 federal grant to create and direct two technology-based after-school programs in Erie middle-schools.
Under the direction of Jane Blystone, Ph.D., three graduate students taught a nine-week, STEM-based water conservation program at Joanna Connell School and two more students ran a nine week literacy project at Emerson-Gridley school as an alternative to writing a typical graduate thesis.
“When Mercyhurst says you get the experience guaranteed, they get the experience guaranteed,” Blystone said. “Because that’s how they have to do their thesis.”
The types of programs the students designed and implement were based upon the resources available around Erie County, as well as the skills of the students themselves.
“We had two science teachers and a math teacher in our program, so they developed it because of the water resources we have in Erie County. And the kids went to Asbury Woods, they went to Tom Ridge Environmental Center and they did things like pH testing,” Blystone said. The literacy program was developed to utilize the skills of the two English teachers in the program, Jennie Brewer and Jeanette Long.
The literacy program required teachers to provide materials for the students, as well as teach them how to blog about the books they were reading, integrating technology into the program.
“One of the things we wanted to do is teach kids that they can connect with other readers online. They also can get books online. They also can pick books of their own choice, they just don’t have to do school books. One of the things we tried to connect with them is that there’s another world of reading besides school reading,” Blystone said.
Mercyhurst graduate students have been using federal grants to implement after-school programs in Erie schools for six years now, working with the Erie school district as part of a program called GEARS (still looking for definition of Acronym) but Blystone remarked on the surprises she encountered in how this year’s group of graduate students performed.
“I thought it was exciting that I had a chemist, a neuroscientist, and a math person who all were able to teach lessons about water conservation. They all brought their own expertise into it,” Blystone said.
She also remarked on the students from the middle-schools who returned from previous years to participate in the program again.
“I think it was exciting and it surprised me that they would come back and essentially participate in the same program, but with new eyes,” she said.
Deirdre Best, a Math major and Psychology minor during her undergraduate education at Mercyhurst was one of the graduate students who helped run the water conservation project at Joanna Connell. Justin Kohnen and Brad Lowe were the other two graduate students who taught the program.
One of the helpful parts of running of the after-school programs was that the experience was her thesis. “Instead of writing a book,” Best said, “I got to do a hands-on thing that I want to do. It was actually preparing me for after graduation. The fact that it was a hands-on thesis was awesome.”
The experiments and projects the graduate students used to demonstrate the need for water conservation were related back to issues facing the water resources in Erie. One project addressed the problems of overfishing, while another discussed the problems of pollution.
“We had them create their own runoff system with foil and a bowl of water. The foil has holes in it and they drop different things in it, like soil, rocks, and oil,” Best said. “Then it rains, so they pour water on it and they see how it filters through the foil and see how it ends up in their lake.”
The experiential learning of the after-school programs paid dividends not only for the graduate students who completed their thesis, but also the middle-school students involved in the program.
“When we left, one of the girls said, ‘Some day I’m going to be at Mercyhurst University,’” Blystone said. “And that was so exciting because some of the kids weren’t even thinking about going to college and for a student to say that was pretty cool.”