CLEMSON – On June 7 in a lab in Clemson University’s Kinard Hall, approximately 30 K-12 teachers from Laurens County schools assembled makeshift telescopes out of meter sticks and magnifying glasses. Using a simple addition equation, they investigated how parallel rays of light pass through convex lenses to converge at a focal point.

The experiment is one of many taught to the teachers through a continuing education partnership with professors Chad Sosolik and Sean Brittain of the department of physics and astronomy in the College of Science. This summer marks the third cohort of K-12 teachers from Laurens County School Districts 55 and 56 to have participated in the science and math outreach program, which is sponsored by the state of South Carolina.

“We teach – you name it – radiation, electricity and magnetism, astronomy, conservation of energy, all sorts of subjects. The content actually comes from one of the books we use in our general physics course here at Clemson,” said Sosolik. “So, the teachers will attend a morning class on a Saturday, and then we’ll do a lab.”

Sean Brittain lectures K-12 teachers on the science of convex lenses.

Sean Brittain lectures K-12 teachers on the science of convex lenses.
Image Credit: Pete Martin / Clemson University

After a series of 10 classes, the teachers have an understanding of the content, and are then able to modify it for their students. The partnership helps to garner confidence for the teachers in answering the questions of curious young minds, and also acts to get younger kids interested in science.

“I feel more informed, because there are things about the galaxy that I had never really thought about,” said Diane Beair, a fifth-grade teacher at Waterloo Elementary. “It’s eye-opening for me to get those concepts and take them back to my classroom and tell the students, ‘This is what I’ve learned.’ So we, as teachers, have also become students through this program – and my students see that.”

In South Carolina public schools, physics is a course usually reserved for junior and senior high school students, though Sosolik and Brittain’s outreach program intends to change that. Elementary school, special education, and even art teachers are enrolled in the partnership.

“It is amazing how the teachers can take even the simplest of concepts back to their younger classrooms so they can start the vocabulary at an earlier age,” said Brenda Schrantz, assistant superintendent for Laurens School District 56. “Their students can then start having a deeper understanding – not just the memorization of a definition – to learn what these concepts mean and how they can be applied when the students get to high school and college.”

Not only does the program fuel a deeper understanding of science, but it highlights the job opportunities available in the field of science, Beair also noted.

Chad Sosolik (right) explains how light rays pass through a convex lens to Diane Beair and Lisa Nelson (left).

Chad Sosolik (right) explains how light rays pass through a convex lens to elementary teachers Diane Beair and Lisa Nelson (left).
Image Credit: Pete Martin / Clemson University

“Math and science are two of those really weak areas that we, as teachers, want to build up, especially for girls. It’s really amazing – I’ve been able to come to Clemson and see how a lot of this technology goes into the work field,” Beair said. “It’s not just the study of the stars; it’s so much more than that. So, I can bring that to my students and get them excited about studying math and science, and I can show them what their futures can look like. I think that’s really important for students, even at the elementary level, to become focused on an area and to discover what they want to do.”

Jesenia Rodriguez, a third-grade teacher at E.B. Morse Elementary, has participated in the science and math program for the past three summers.

“We struggle through our labs just like my students do, so our professors still have to be patient with us and have to accommodate all our grade levels,” Rodriguez said. “The program helps us mostly with content, but there are also labs that keep us brushed up on physics and science so we can bring STEM into the classroom and be able to support and answer student questions.”

After teaching an experiment, Sosolik and Brittain will offer suggestions to the teachers on how to inexpensively replicate the labs in their classrooms. Because of this, Rodriguez was able to teach a lesson on water quality and the water cycle to her third-grade students that she learned from a prior summer in the outreach program.

Kelsey Cato (left), Jesenia Rodridgez, and Christy Brewington work together to assemble a telescope.

Third-grade teachers Kelsey Cato (left), Jesenia Rodriguez, and Christy Brewington work together to assemble a telescope.
Image Credit: Pete Martin / Clemson University

“The students love the projects, and they love working together to create something,” she said.

With a total solar eclipse scheduled to occur on Aug. 21 over the Upstate, Sosolik and Brittain added an extra lesson on eclipses to this summer’s program itinerary.

“Astronomy is a big unit in fourth-grade science,” said Lisa Nelson, a fourth-grade teacher at Waterloo Elementary, “And this program has made me feel like I’ll really be able to help my students understand what exactly is going on with the eclipse come August 21st by explaining what the moon, sun and the planet are doing all at the same time.”

The grant funding that supports Sosolik and Brittain’s outreach program is set to run out next year, but the pair are hopeful that they’ll find another funder before that time. More funding would keep the program running, and also help the researchers expand their outreach into Oconee and Pickens counties, something Sosolik says he would like to do.