NEEDHAM — An hour before classes started at Needham’s Mitchell Elementary School one recent day, when classrooms were still dark and the hallways were deserted, a ruckus emanated from the first-floor art room.
About 20 third-graders were gathered around four tables, peering down at a poster-sized map with the outlines of fictional islands drawn on wide-ruled graphing paper. Many climbed up onto the tables, sitting next to the paper for a better view.
“Today, we’re going to cover estimation, area, and geometry,” said 20-year-old Rachel Boy, who stood at the front of the class.
“What?” one boy yelled out. “I didn’t even get half of what you just said!”
The scene was a normal one for the four Olin College of Engineering students leading the class of third-graders, part of a student-run Olin program called Engineering Discovery, where 30 undergraduates — about 10 percent of the Needham college’s student population — volunteer to lead a semester’s worth of free Thursday workshops on science, technology, engineering and math topics at schools in nearby communities.
The college students work with local school officials to create a curriculum of hands-on projects designed to teach the basics of scientific fields that are growing rapidly with technological advances.
Although the Olin teaching club has been around for years, it now proves one of the most popular extracurriculars on campus and has been getting a big response from area public schools, Boy said.
“The club has already reached saturation for students this year, and we’re constantly getting new requests from both people who want to do it and schools that want to come into the program,” said Boy, who sits on the club’s leadership board.
This semester, Olin students also hosted weekly workshops at Wellesley’s Schofield and Sprague elementary schools, Westwood High School, and Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood, Boy said.
“We’ve been working with more and more schools every semester,” she said. “And we try hard to work with as many people who contact us as we can, because we always learn something new from the experience too.”
The workshops tend to become the stuff of legend among the younger students: Boy said the club’s bottle rocket workshop for high-schoolers always draws a crowd, and Mitchell third-graders excitedly recalled a catapult experiment where they learned about energy, levers, and ratio.
“It’s exciting for kids to see real engineering, and do things they actually enjoy in school,” Boy said. “I care a lot about giving as many kids as I can a hands-on experience so they can decide for themselves if they like engineering.”
And in a field primarily dominated by men — a US Census Bureau report in September found that twice as many men are employed in a science, engineering, or technology occupation than women — the Olin students said they especially liked making pint-sized physics pros out of the girls.
“It’s really exciting to get the girls into science and math, and to show them that girls can do it just as well as boys can,” said Olin senior Chelsea Nayback, who led a table of six girls during the Mitchell workshop.
The college women’s excitement for science is apparently contagious: All of Nayback’s female pupils rushed to explain how much they loved the experiments conducted by their Olin teachers, proudly pointing out that what they learned that day hasn’t been taught in regular classes yet.
“I didn’t always like math, but they teach it in a funner way,” said Kara Cooper, while classmate Leyna Blume chimed in, “I like how we get to experiment and do math!”
Mitchell principal Mike Schwinden said Needham’s school district has an ongoing relationship with Olin, noting that in addition to morning and afternoon science workshops, the college donated a solar-powered water fountain built by engineering students.
“Their students work so well with our students,” he said. “They keep them interested, excited, and well-behaved. I wish I had something like this when I was in third grade, and I wish all students in our state had access to programs like these.”
Although the Olin undergrads don’t receive any class credit for giving up their mornings and afternoons for the Engineering Discovery program, which is a subgroup of the college’s community service club, they said the experience has inspired them to tutor and mentor kids even after they enter the workforce.
And if the early start for before-school workshops fazes the college students, one would never know it.
“It’s a really fulfilling way to start off a morning,” Olin sophomore Bill Warner said with a smile.Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.