It is, some of the teens say, a high point in their week.
They arrive at 4 p.m. on a Friday at Seminole Elementary School lugging pennies, disposable baking pans and rolls of thin aluminum foil.
They are International Baccalaureate students at Hillsborough High School, which means their life is often a stress bath. Describing one of the day’s IB exams, student Crystal Cooper says, “that was the easiest test we had yet,” and the others just roll their eyes.
They get busy tearing off squares of foil. About 20 minutes later, 25 elementary students file in.
It’s Science Buddies day.
There is a national nonprofit organization called Science Buddies, but this club has nothing to do with it and its founder says the name was coincidental. Shloke Patel, a senior with his eye on a career in biological engineering, launched the local program two years ago along with several of his Hillsborough IB classmates.
Seminole Elementary was eager to sign on, said physical education teacher Tyler Marsh, who also is lead teacher of the Hillsborough Out of School Time program. They had been trying to make the program less of a babysitting service and more of an extension of the school day, staffed with school employees and consistent with school culture.
When Patel and his friends enlisted Hillsborough physics teacher Neal Mobley as their faculty sponsor, Mobley said, “I was a little unsure about what they had planned. Were they going to take field trips? It sounded like a lot of paperwork. Then a few months went by and I got busy.”
He checked in with the students, “and, lo and behold, they had been doing it all along.”
Not all outside programs are welcomed by Seminole’s after-school children.
But the kids do appreciate the group from Hillsborough High. “They jump in and love interacting with the high school kids,” Marsh said. “They’re not just there to get community service hours. They actually enjoy it, and the kids know it. Kids see through fakeness.”
The IB students have kept Science Buddies going despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic and other, much smaller glitches. Patel remembers a day when they had planned an egg-drop experiment. On the way to Seminole, someone accidentally dropped and broke all the eggs. They had to stretch out the explanatory part of the lesson while somebody bought more eggs.
One recent day, they showed the kids how to make little boats from their foil squares for an activity about gravity and buoyancy. A few boats disintegrated into shards of thin foil, while others looked more like square box lids and a few resembled actual boats.
“Now we’re going to put it in a bowl of water and see how many pennies it can hold,” IB student Aidan John told the children.
Water spilled and shards of foil littered the cafeteria tables. Some boats held 100 pennies or more. Parents arrived in the middle of the activity to retrieve their children. The teens adjusted by bumping those students up in line.
The prize for the winner: cookies from a supermarket bakery box.
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For the other students — also cookies.
IB programs have service hour requirements on top of the community service students perform to earn Bright Future scholarships. But senior Akshat Guduru said, “Honestly, I just do this for fun.”
Some described a sense of relief when they step into the school, a way to recapture the wonder they felt in their own early science fair years before downshifting into a weekend that likely includes school work. They are so pleased with the experience that they are writing up some of the activities and will make them available to district elementary science teachers.
Despite his other career plans, Patel said he has not ruled out becoming a teacher at some point. Mobley is something of a role model, as he entered teaching after prior careers as a Naval officer and then an attorney.
No one can measure the effect Science Buddies has on the Seminole children’s academic performance. It may or may not have been a factor in students’ passing rates on the state science exam, which rose from 38 to 48 percent between 2021 and 2022.
In general, Mobley said, “simple science activities can teach things that are worth knowing in science class. I hope some of it sticks with them.”