Chasing the “WOW!” With Citizen Schools and EPA Science

By Andrew Murray

Students share their final presentations.

Students share their final presentations.

When I was first asked to lead an after school Citizen Schools apprenticeship, I was fairly apprehensive. Sure, I had taught plenty of episodic classroom presentations and felt comfortable around kids, but committing to teach the same 20 students every week? It was a bit intimidating at first, especially since I’ve never been trained as a teacher and just graduated from college myself.

I was quickly reassured that Citizen Schools is all about having non-teachers teaching; thus the reason it’s called “Citizen” Schools. Volunteer “Citizen Teachers” teach after school hands-on apprenticeships on topics from their careers and expertise. The apprenticeships are taught for 90 minutes, once a week, for 10 weeks, with a final showcase at the end of the semester. The Citizen Schools program targets low-income middle schools to close the “opportunity gap” through academic enrichment and career insight. EPA has been participating in the Durham, NC Citizen Schools program for seven years, at both Neal Middle School and Lowe’s Grove Middle School.

Last fall, I was lucky enough to join a team of veteran EPA employees teaching at Lowe’s Grove. Our apprenticeship was called “Power Play,” which focused on studying various energy generation methods, and their relations to pollution and climate change.

Once we decided on what we were going to teach, we pitched our apprenticeship at the Citizen School Apprenticeship Fair. The students then get the opportunity to sign up for the apprenticeships that interest them. I watched the veterans pitch the apprenticeship a couple of times, and then took my first swing at it. After seeing the kids get excited, my own excitement and confidence grew and, suddenly, I was hooked.

Over the following ten weeks, we would meet with the students every Wednesday after school and teach them about energy and the environment. We built solar ovens, wind turbines, and water wheels, and learned about energy consumption and modeling through an Energy Generation board game developed by EPA colleagues.

"GENERATE!" board game developed by EPA researchers.

“Generate,” a board game developed by EPA researchers.

Every week was mentally challenging, but extremely rewarding. It all lead up to the final presentations – the WOW! event where the students had the chance to “teach back” to the public, their teachers, and their families. For me, the WOW! was what made teaching the apprenticeship addicting. After seeing what the students took away and how excited they were to present it and teach it to the public, I realized what a difference the citizen teachers make in the lives of these students.

The new semester of Citizen School is about to start, and I will be teaching with the same team again at Lowe’s Grove. We will be leading an apprenticeship on “Making Sense of Air Quality,” while another team leads an apprenticeship at Neal on “Environmental Sensing.” I’m so excited to get back in the classroom to make a difference in the lives of another class of up-and-coming environmental experts!

About the Author: Andrew Murray is a Student Services Contractor for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He graduated from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 2009, and a received B.S. in Environmental Science from NC State University in 2014.

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