Remote antidote: College students’ Tin Can Learners offers kids fun engagement

  • Natalie Elliott holds petri dishes containing bacteria up to her laptop camera in Amherst for her students to see during her Mad Scientist class Wednesday on Zoom. STAFF PHOTOS/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Natalie Elliott listens to her students during her Mad Scientist class Wednesday on Zoom.

  • Natalie Elliott measures dishwashing soap for an experiment where she extracts DNA from strawberries during her Mad Scientist class on Zoom, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Natalie Elliott pours a solution containing mashed strawberries through a coffee filter during an experiment where she extracts DNA from them during her Mad Scientist class on Zoom, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Natalie Elliott uses a spoon to compress a coffee filter containing a solution of mashed strawberries for an experiment where she extracts DNA from them during her Mad Scientist class on Zoom, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Natalie Elliott holds a bag of a solution containing mashed strawberries during an experiment where she extracts DNA from them during her Mad Scientist class on Zoom, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Natalie Elliott holds strawberries at the start of an experiment where she extracts DNA from them during her Mad Scientist class on Zoom, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Natalie Elliott conducts an experiment where she extracts DNA from strawberries during her Mad Scientist class. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2020 2:23:39 PM

AMHERST — Overly ripe strawberries mashed up inside a plastic bag, then mixed with water, table salt and dish soap is a concoction used to extract DNA from the fruit.

“It’s kind of like we’re making a fun little potion here,” Natalie Elliott says to two fourth graders over a Zoom call on her laptop, as she manipulates the material while sitting on the back porch of her home in Amherst.

After pouring the goop through a coffee filter and adding chilled rubbing alcohol, both Elliott and Liz Woolford, who are coordinating what they call a top secret science project, explain that the resulting strands of genetic material illustrate the complexity of the bright red berry.

The experiment is part of an afterschool class for Tin Can Learners, a recently launched remote project-based enrichment program created by five college students, four of whom graduated from Amherst Regional High School. In addition to Elliott and Rafael DePillis, who are both in town this semester, the team includes Tessa Levenstein and Michayla Robertson-Pine, who are in Maine with Woolford.

“The main goal is to have fun and hands-on projects,” Elliott said of teaching the Mad Scientist class.

“It’s both fun and provides social connections, as well,” Woolford added while on the Zoom call.

For Asher Gordon, one of the fourth graders from Amherst participating in Mad Scientist, seeing the strawberry DNA, as well as growing bacteria on petri dishes as part of an earlier experiment, is both gross and cool. “I can learn new things but also get to be social and hang out with people,” Asher said.

Asher’s mother, Vanessa Walker, said she appreciates what Tin Can Learners offers.

“As a parent, I love that these programs engage the kids educationally but make it a lot of fun,” Walker said. “Perhaps even more importantly in this moment, they really do a wonderful job of creating a sense of community among the kids.”

Tin Can Learners was the brainchild of Levenstein, a rising junior at Amherst College majoring in math and history.

“The idea is to create joyful learning for students in fourth through eighth grades during the days of online school,” Levenstein said.

Levenstein and Robertson-Pine, who studies theater and education at Wesleyan University, began discussing the idea after starting an online class about Harry Potter for children of Amherst College faculty and staff last spring.

“Out of that came the idea for programs for kids who needed a way to connect with each other,” Levenstein said.

With their own uncertainty about returning to school — Levenstein, for instance, is taking this semester off — they saw a need for supplementing the remote K-12 curriculum with skills they have honed as camp counselors at the Deerfield Academy Summer Arts Camp.

“It’s similar in spirit,” Levenstein said.

Elliott, a junior at Vanderbilt University majoring in earth and environmental science, and DePillis, who studies biochemistry and computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Honors College, both got on board this summer. Elliott said Tin Can Learners has been a consistent bright spot.

“It feels like a great symbiotic relationship, where we work hard to put together programming focused on what our students and their families need, while each week they inspire us with their creativity, insight and resilience,” Elliott said.

DePillis said a job he had previously lined up was lost due to the pandemic. “When Tessa mentioned she had an idea for a way to let kids still connect during this stressful time, I was so excited,” he said.

In addition to the Mad Scientist class, with a focus on chemistry, biology and physics, four additional classes are being offered during the current three-week session. They include a class on fractions and decimals, aimed primarily at fifth and sixth graders, another on assembling cookbook recipes, one on making a short mockumentary film, and lastly a class titled “advanced art portfolio.”

Amber Ortiz of Greenfield said Tin Can Learners has been perfect for her stepdaughter Summer, 12, to supplement remote school learning this fall, replacing playing video games with engagement. Summer has been part of the advanced art portfolio class.

“She loves art and that has helped her to hone in on the discipline of being an artist,” Ortiz said. Summer, she said, has been happier and gained confidence to join afterschool activities at Greenfield Middle School.

For the third session, running from Nov. 2 through Dec. 18, there will be six weeks of classes, each running for about 90 minutes once a week. They will include animation coding, filmfest, music video, writers circle and advanced art portfolio.

The cost is $235 for one afterschool class, $385 for two classes and $535 for three classes, with the cost covering stipends for the instructors. But Levenstein said price shouldn’t be a deterrent and Tin Can Learners is offering a pay-what-you-can model. There are also various supplements parents can purchase for $75, including tutoring sessions and Friday fun day, which includes activities such as Halloween costume preparation and a workout class.

Whether the program continues beyond this fall may depend on the continued demand for the services as children begin returning to physical classrooms, and the college students themselves may be going back to their own regular studies.

“We want kids to be in person in school,” Levenstein said. “Tin Can definitely came out of a specific problem of remote learning not giving kids the community they need.”




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