A photo of a a man sitting at a desk with two childre. Next to them are two other children sitting at another desk.
VCU student Marcus Garza works with J. L. Francis students on an activity exploring erosion. (Photo by Emily Richardson)

Hands-on learning – for fifth-graders and VCU students – is the natural reaction for Chemistry in the Community

Professor Mychal Smith’s service-learning course brings science alive for Richmond Public Schools and lets his college students apply their knowledge.

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The fifth-grade science classroom is buzzing with laughter and excitement as VCU’s Mychal Smith throws out the questions.

What’s the freezing temperature? What happens when water heats up? When it’s raining really hard, what else is going on?

“Thunder,” one student exclaims confidently. “It’s windy,” says another.

These pint-sized protégés aren’t his usual students, but Smith, Ph.D., has brought the generations together on this day at J.L. Francis Elementary School in Richmond. The teaching associate professor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Chemistry is introducing a hands-on science lab that will be led largely by his college students: They are taking his Chemistry in the Community service-learning class, which brings undergraduate science majors into Richmond Public Schools.

“It’s a chance to actually go into the community and use your major,” Smith said. “A lot of times, especially in science, when you do science-related outreach, you’re handing out something or tutoring. These are actual science experiments, and you can use the things you learned.”

Marcus Garza, a biology major, embraced the eagerness of the young students – and the impact they made on him.

“The [kids] were always a joy to be around, and seeing their interest in STEM grow right in front of me made the class,” he said. “Being able to see their reactions and excitement during the experiments made it an amazing experience.”

Smith began the Chemistry in the Community class in 2018. He structures each lab around a question on Virginia’s fifth-grade Standards of Learning exam in science, and topics at J.L. Francis in this past school year have included ultraviolet light, erosion – and on this day, weather and condensation. After Smith’s lively back-and-forth introduction, his VCU students will guide the fifth-graders through a lab in which they will create a “cloud in a jar” by lighting a match, dropping it in a jar and putting ice on top.

Elise Villanueva, an interdisciplinary science major, said her semester of community teaching was rewarding.

“The kids were always so excited to do a new experiment every week, and it was nice to assist and interact with them,” she said. “I’m happy I came across this opportunity, because it allowed me to connect with the kids and share some knowledge about science.”

A photo of a man talking at the front of a science classroom.
Mychal Smith, Ph.D., brings undergraduate science majors into Richmond Public Schools to teach kids about science during his Chemistry in the Community service-learning class. (Photo by Alexis Finc)

Assami Potter, who teaches fifth-grade science at J.L. Francis, said the VCU program lets his students work with materials they otherwise wouldn’t – for example, doing a lab with a spectrometer, which measures wavelengths of light. And he noted that attendance is higher when Smith and the VCU students are visiting.

“They can do some experiments, they get a chance to talk and be social – because science is a social activity,” Potter said.

Kecia Ryan, the principal at J.L. Francis, added that the service-learning program highlights the diversity of VCU students, which can inspire the younger generation.

“What we always try to do is introduce our students to the possibilities,” said Ryan, who earned her master’s in educational leadership from VCU. “My kids get to see themselves in college, what they might look like if they go to college, because now they see someone who looks like them who’s in college.”

Smith agreed. “Different types of people love science and are going to stay in science for a future career,” he said. “So kids really get a good idea of how they can use it in the future and how fun it actually is.”

Perspectives also are sharpened for the VCU students. Madigan Achico said Chemistry in the Community allowed her to appreciate her own education in a new way.

“As a college student, we often get really stressed out, and it’s sometimes hard to see why we decided to go into the careers we do,” the chemistry major said. “Working with the kids reminded us how amazing learning really is – and how lucky we are to not only be able to study and go further with our own interests, but also be able to support the kids’ interests in STEM and encourage them to take initiative in their learning.”

Henry Jimenez, the Communities in Schools site coordinator at J.L. Francis, said the hands-on nature of the service-learning program is a standout quality.

“You can get taught something verbally, but to actually be able to physically see what it is helps bridge the gaps in learning and understanding – and frames it in a different way to make it more fun and relatable to day-to-day life,” he said.

And day-to-day life includes how young students can be molded by the embrace of their college-age role models.

“Sometimes people forget that kids are also going through the same things adults are, but adults have developed more skills to be able to handle those ongoing hardships,” Jimenez said. “A child is still learning and adapting. Something as simple as a volunteer to come and hang out with them and do something is more meaningful and impactful than you could realize.”