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Nov. 19

This Family Uses Science to Spark `Aha' Moments in Kids

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stem20ryan20comp_0.jpgRyan Traynor, right, runs through an activity with kids at his family's library summer camp.

When school lets out for summer break, most students cast aside their textbooks for the distractions of the season. But one family in San Mateo County, Calif., dedicated their summer to helping young people improve literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) comprehension, raising the students’ odds for success when they return to classrooms in the fall.

Martha Traynor, her husband Steve and son Ryan, 15, created summer camps at the Redwood City Library for kids ages 8 to 12 to conduct experiments and learn STEM concepts. Working together, the Traynors designed every aspect of the camps, from curriculum to recruiting teachers.

“We knew that by offering a STEM class in the summer we could stop the summer brain drain common when children avoid learning activities during the summer break,” says Martha. “Also, we could encourage their interest in STEM careers, reading and research by experimentation.”

San Mateo is adjacent to Silicon Valley, the technology hub that employs tens of thousands of engineers and technology professionals. But only half of third grade students in San Mateo are proficient at reading.

And California experiences the largest gap among all states between minorities and STEM degree achievement. The Traynors are working together to close this gap, coming through with creative experiments that elicit the “aha” moment to keep children excited.

The Traynors have always been avid readers, cherishing a lifelong connection with their local library. Martha serves on the board of the Library Foundation. And her son, an Eagle Scout, has actively supported the library throughout his childhood.

When Ryan was 11 and seeking to earn his Boy Scout reading merit badge, he began reading to 30 preschool children each week in low-income areas through a library program, Traveling Story Time.

For most of these children, Ryan was the only one in their lives reading to them. He discovered that the one book he gave them each year through the program was the only book many of them owned.

When he learned the number of books in a family’s home is a predictor of future academic success, he wanted to do more. So he started a Youth Literacy Council to bring his peers together around the issue.

The Traynors launched their summer STEM camps, which drew 120 participants, each receiving free books and an educational toy to take home. The family recruited 28 teenage volunteers to help lead the classes and experiments.

“By working together we all learned a lot, not just about the subjects, but about each other,” Martha says. “And it made us even closer. Being able to depend on each other to write scripts, gather the needed materials and get everything together on time required trust, coordination and excellent communication.”

The average assessment score before the Traynors’ sessions for the students in the summer camps was 10 percent correct. After receiving instruction in the camps, test scores rose to an average of 90 percent correct.

“These teen teachers showed the students how to complete the experiments themselves, allowing them to find satisfaction and enjoyment in their successes in STEM,” says Martha. “Hopefully this experience will generate the scientists, engineers and teachers of the future.”

 

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