By Stephanie Burton
Texas Hillel recently welcomed hundreds of Austin elementary-school students and campus volunteers for its semiannual Crazy Science Extravaganza, a fun-filled day of frog and owl-pellet dissections, experiments with liquid nitrogen, lunch and other creative science activities. Since its inception in the fall of 2002, the event has shown more than 1,000 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders who attend local inner-city schools how exciting science, and college life, can be.
"This is an opportunity to show underprivileged kids from the community what college life is like. We believe that they can get to college," said Robin Weber, the program director at Texas Hillel.
The activities go on all day and include many booths run by the different student organizations. While the fall event usually focuses on fun science projects, the spring program, which is timed close to the state's standardized testing season, helps prepare the students for their upcoming exams. At one booth, for example, the children learned about plant parts. They then created one large plant with objects that coincide with that part -- the roots of the plant were made with carrots and the stem with celery, for example. At the end of the activity, the children are given a question related to the concept they just learned that closely mirrors the questions on the test.
Held once each fall and spring semester, the event is not just beneficial for the elementary school children. Weber notes that this is a great program because it allows the more than 200 student and faculty volunteers from groups like Women in Science and SEEK (Students Engaging Educated Kids) to come together for a meaningful cause – and learn more about Hillel in the process.
"A lot of people get to learn about Jewish life on campus, and I think that's really cool," said Dana Greenberg, one of the program's new co-chairs.
The idea for Crazy Science Extravaganza grew out of a brainstorming session between Rebecca Katz, a 2002 Texas graduate who majored in elementary education, and senior Josh Friedensohn, a chemical engineering major, in the fall of 2001.
"We both really liked science and working with kids, and we designed an event where we could play with science with kids in an informal setting," Friedensohn said.
From the initial event, which brought 100 students from one elementary school to campus, the program has now grown to include five schools, and approximately 250 kids participate each semester. Katz, now a teacher at Pickle Elementary School, remains involved with the event by connecting Texas Hillel with local elementary schools, and many of the volunteers also return each semester to join in the fun.
"There's no reason not to totally fall in love with this event," Friedensohn said. "The majority of volunteers aren't science people, and they don't need to be. A lot of it is just practical knowledge."
Though Friedensohn is about to graduate and leave behind his hands-on touch to the program, he expects that, like Katz, he'll always remained involved in some capacity.
"I want to make sure that Texas Hillel doesn't let this program go anywhere but up," he said. "I'm very excited to leave it in good hands."
Stephanie Burton is a senior at the George Washington University and an intern in Hillel's communications department.