Hands-on Science

"Project START!" Aims to Excite Youngsters about Science

During study breaks in their first year at Einstein, Yair Saperstein and Peter Kahn—now second-year medical students—decided to work on something simple: changing the world.

"We were study buddies and, whenever we took a break, we would discuss our ideas," explained Mr. Saperstein.

Second-year medical students Yair Saperstein and Peter Kahn prepare an educational module
Second-year medical students Yair Saperstein and Peter Kahn prepare an educational module
One day, the focus of their discussion turned to Project START! Science, a volunteer teaching program Mr. Saperstein had co-founded with other undergraduate students while attending Yeshiva University (YU). "START" stands for "Students, Teachers and Researchers Teach" and, through the program, groups of YU students are organized to teach hands-on science in public schools.

"During one of our discussions, we decided we would expand the program internationally," said Mr. Kahn.

Pursuing A Global Focus

The duo's plans for global expansion were helped when they entered Project START! (as the program is called for short) in the Dell Social Innovation Challenge and received semi-finalist honors. Universities from other countries took notice, and indicated an interest in collaborating.

The University of Zimbabwe started a program in November 2012, followed a month later by York University in Toronto, Canada. Mr. Saperstein and Mr. Kahn are currently working with schools in Israel and Peru on getting programs going, as well as at other schools in the United States.

Social Outreach

It all began with an e-mail.

In 2011, Mr. Saperstein contacted the YU student body; he sought volunteers interested in teaching science at P.S. 366, the public school located in the university's Washington Heights neighborhood. He recalled, "I expected about five replies, but instead I got 70." Three years later, Project START! has more than 150 active volunteers at YU.

The project's motto is: "Enabling hundreds to enable thousands." Project members aim to spark the curiosity of young students by designing learning modules that address one of four fields that constitute "STEM education"— lessons that focus on science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The concept behind each lesson is to connect how these academic concepts can be applied in real-world situations.

Students in Project START! describe their program
(Video provided courtesy of Sherry Mazzocchi)
"One of our goals is to create learning modules that capture the innate curiosity of young minds," said Mr. Kahn. "We hope to augment the lessons students learn in their classrooms to raise the excitement level and interest that students may have."

"We were very fortunate to have P.S. 366, I.S. 143 and P.S. 132 welcome us into their classrooms," added Mr. Saperstein. "Having an idea is one thing; we're grateful we've been given the opportunity to carry it out and see it blossom."

Whether building foam roller coasters to learn the conversion of mechanical energy, constructing bridges out of gumdrops and toothpicks to test bridge strength, or making silly putty from glue to learn about chemical reactions, the young students have fun.

"It's exciting to learn hands-on," noted Mr. Saperstein. "It makes the information stick."

Sharing Resources Locally and Globally

Mr. Saperstein and Mr. Kahn share the philosophy that anyone with more knowledge can help those with less.

"We want to harness the enthusiasm and excitement of those who want to teach others, so that it keeps growing," said Mr. Saperstein.

Toward that goal, the Project START! team stores its low-cost teaching modules in an online database that allows volunteers to easily access lesson plans. Two Einstein clubs, Project TEACH and EiSci, also use the database for projects they run at local hospitals and schools, respectively. (Mr. Saperstein is a co-founder of TEACH, which stands for Together Educating All Children in Hospitals.)

Through the database, the methodology also can be used across continents, to wherever there are students interested in teaching and learning science.

"Whether they live in Zimbabwe or the Bronx, there are kids who are interested in science and are eager to learn," said Mr. Kahn. "START aims to provide the resources through which STEM education can be brought within reach of any student."

Being the Change They Wish to See

While both Einstein students speak passionately about their work, they are humble about the program's successes thus far. They view the current expansions as just the beginning. Looking ahead, Mr. Saperstein noted, "In 10 years, I certainly plan to be a major coordinator in this." Then, with a smile, he added, "And in 100 years, hopefully I still can be, but by then we'll have a lot more people, just in case I won't be able to function as well."

"I hope our project's methodology will eventually make its way into textbooks, so STEM education can spread around the world," added Mr. Kahn.

At the heart of their efforts, though, remains the vision that got them started on their mission to expand Project START!—changing the world.

"Our concept for changing the world is really pretty simple," said Mr. Kahn. "It's this idea of everyone helping each other through education."

Posted on: Monday, February 24, 2014