Biochemistry Undergraduates Mentor Elementary Students through Engagement Program

Photo of Ben Ehrlich mentoring elementary school students

Every student in the Department of Biochemistry was inspired to pursue science at some point in his or her life. Some students enjoy paying that inspiration forward. By getting involved in the Adult Role Models in Science (ARMS) program, they are engaging elementary and middle school students in science.

The ARMS program is run by the Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement (WISCIENCE) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison but also functions as a community organization. University students feed into the ARMS program through a two-semester course they take on campus. In the course, they learn about how young students learn science and also exactly how to engage them in activities. They then go out to schools to put to use what they’ve learned.

Students have taken part in the program in the past and several, including undergraduate biochemistry majors Ben Ehrlich and Jefferson Driscoll, recently finished their year of the course and mentoring. All reflect on their time as inspirational and empowering for both themselves and their students — carrying on the Wisconsin Idea to use their education to impact others.

“I think one of the biggest challenges was getting the hang of how to interact with kids again,” says Ehrlich, who went to Hawthorne Elementary every Friday to run a science club with students. “It was great to get to know the kids better through that time and see them improve. I’ve had great mentors and teachers throughout my life so I really wanted to give back and try to do the same for others.”

Photo of recent biochemistry graduate Ben Ehrlich mentoring elementary school students
Ben Ehrlich, who recently graduated with his undergraduate degree in biochemistry,
mentored students for a year at Hawthorne Elementary every Friday. As part of the
science engagement course he ran a science club for a students. 

The ARMS program is managed by Dolly Ledin, who also teaches the course on science engagement to undergraduates and graduate students. While she is retiring this summer after 27 years in the role, the programs will continue. The program current collaborates with more than 30 sites.

“The course focuses on youth development and how you work with youth to foster confidence in their own abilities and engage them in science,” she explains. “But I don’t lecture for much of the class. We also focus on the ‘how’ in regards to performing the activities and getting students engaged. We give the students the tools they need and they are out in their schools practicing and learning the second or third week of class.”

Many university students that enter the class are enthusiastic about sharing science with younger people but may not know exactly how to do it. Ledin says that in her course the students work in groups to practice actually doing the activities they will do with the kids, critiquing each other on their performance. For example, they make sure the presenter leaves enough time for kids to process what they learned or suggest that students perform a certain task at the white board themselves rather than the presenter doing it.

The programs also have avenues where graduate students can get directly involved in classrooms and mentor middle school students. There are also family science nights that provide a shorter-term commitment.

Ehrlich graduated in May with his biochemistry degree and says he wants to continue working to get youth engaged in science. Through the class they are armed with the tools and know-how to actually engage younger students. University students that participate in the program often go down many paths afterward: some become teachers or others pursue a degree in science or medicine but continue to actively volunteer or mentor young people.

“I’d love to continue doing it, especially now that I’ve developed some of the skills and understand how to engage kids and work on lesson plans,” Ehrlich says. “I definitely hope other biochemistry students get involved in the program. So many of the kids mentioned they were interested in becoming scientists at the end of the year, which was really exciting to hear.”