Once a week, in a classroom at Thomson Elementary School, children comb through fossils, devise strategies to power vast cities, and guide spaceships into their docks.
Those exploits are occurring via Kinetic City, an online supplementary education program that seeks to spark an interest in science among minority and female students through interactive games, experiments, and other activities.
Kinetic City targets students in grades 3-5, most of whom use the site in after-school programs, though some schools use it for in-class lessons.
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At Thomson Elementary, a 340-student school, serving predominantly minority students in the District of Columbia system, 25 pupils gather after school and use computers to access the site, at www.kineticcity.com. The site presents them with games and hands-on demonstrations and experiments. Students accumulate points online, and compete against one another.
“It offers so many different ways to do science,” says Michelle Sheahan, a parent who volunteers to help run the program at the school. “Some students are better at drawing; some are better at writing. Some are better on computers. Every student has something they’re good at.”
The program is sponsored by the one of the leading scientific organizations in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington. Kinetic City was launched as a radio show in 1994, and was then made into a book series, before the complete Web site for after-school science clubs was created in 2004, says Bob Hirshon, a senior project director at the AAAS, who oversees the program.
Its underlying principle is that students who might otherwise be intimidated or bored by science can be drawn to the subject through fun, well-designed activities and simple technology.
“It’s coming at science through different paths and routes to try to get them to respond in ways that they haven’t before,” Hirshon says. “There are so many programs for kids who love science. We thought we’d go after the kids who [say they] are not loving science.”
The site seeks to build those students’ interest in myriad ways, such as through its depiction in its animated and interactive activities of minority and female characters who are working as scientists.
Public access to the site is free. After-school clubs can also buy science kits with multiple activities, customized Web sites for their clubs, and training on how to use those materials, for prices ranging from $400 to $1,200. Many after-school clubs seek funding from schools or private foundations to cover costs, and the aaas also helps sometimes, Hirshon says.
Students are introduced to major scientific topics and issues, from evolution to human physiology to basic lessons on how memory works. Those lessons are based on key concepts from the AAAS’ Benchmarks for Science Literacy, a widely used resource that spells out what K-12 students should know in that subject.
During one recent activity, students visiting the site with Sheahan were asked to look at a display of human organs—such as the large intestine, the stomach, and the trachea—and drag them with a computer mouse to a nearby human figure. As a clock timed the youngsters, they had to figure out which organs fit which system—respiratory, digestive, muscular, and so on.
In one of Kinetic City’s most popular activities, on gravity, students must guide a spaceship from Earth to a docking station, using a computer mouse to operate the vessel’s thrust, angle, and launch. Students must account for the force of Earth’s gravity to keep the ship on course.
Sheahan often has far more students than available computers, so she rotates children into the online activities in 45-minute shifts. Many of her club participants don’t have computers at home, she says.
But they eagerly tell her of their efforts to get back online whenever they can—during breaks at school, at public libraries, or friends’ houses.
“It’s thrilling for them,” Sheahan says. “They beg to get on a computer.”