Eleven University of Nebraska–Lincoln students devoted part of their winter break to a “winternship,” teaching science fundamentals to K-8 students in a 4-H-backed science and technology program called “Galactic Quest.”
Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 4, the half-day program was offered at 12 sites in eastern Nebraska: Aurora, Blair, Central City, Columbus, Crete, David City, Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, Nelson, Seward and Weeping Water. About 120 youth participated in the program.
During a session Jan. 4 at Crete Public Library, two Husker “winterns” guided six students ages 8 to 14 as they used a Caesar cipher wheel to decode secret messages; assembled small telescopes to view constellations depicted on paper posted on the far side of the room; and built small mechanical arms that might be used to harvest crops in space. The “Galactic Quest” curriculum was developed at Clemson University as part of an annual 4-H STEM challenge.
In addition to exposing more youngsters to scientific concepts and giving parents a welcome break from stir-crazy kids, the program provided the Husker students a chance to flex their teaching skills, make a little money — and have fun.
“I love teaching kids,” said honors student Brisa Rios, a sophomore psychology and sociology major from Scottsbluff, who said otherwise she’d be staying home or working out. “The kids are super funny and fun to work with.”
Rios and fellow honors student Meagan Heimbrecht, a junior music education major from Lincoln, taught the Crete group. Their young students gave them good reviews.
“I really like science,” said 11-year-old Bryson, who said he enjoyed decoding with the cipher wheel, an exercise designed to introduce students to computer security concepts. With the end of his winter break looming, he said he was happy to come to the workshop.
“Otherwise, I’d be sitting around doing nothing,” Bryson said.
The winternship is the latest step in a partnership between Nebraska 4-H and the University Honors Program to provide after school and summer learning opportunities to Nebraska youth. About 70 Husker students served as mentors with the Huskers After-School and Summer Learning Opportunities program in summer 2021.
The initiatives serve a two-fold goal for 4-H, said Tracy Pracheil, a 4-H youth development extension educator who helps coordinate the program. They bring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to students outside the school setting and in their communities; and they expose youth to “near peers” — college students — who can serve as influential role models.
Patrice McMahon, director of the University Honors Program, said the partnership gives students in the honors program opportunities to hone their leadership, communication and problem-solving skills.
“For students who are interested in social justice and who want to make a difference in their community, this is a perfect partnership,” she said.
Since 2018, the honors program has worked with Lincoln’s Community Learning Centers, along with 4-H, Beyond School Bells and other partners, to provide after school and summer learning opportunities to nearly 3,000 youth, McMahon said.
During the week of Jan. 10-14, more honors students are slated to spend part of their winter breaks leading after school learning sessions at Lincoln and Omaha locations.
“I was delighted and amazed so many gave up their breaks to do this,” McMahon said. “It’s kind of a hard ask.”
The students were paid through CARES Act funding obtained by Beyond School Bells, a statewide public-private partnership affiliated with the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation to provide after school and summer learning opportunities for Nebraska youth.
Heimbrecht said the Galactic Quest workshops gave her a chance to practice the student engagement techniques she’s learned in her music education classes.
“It’s good experience, it’s fun — it doesn’t feel like work,” she said. “And I needed to make money.”
Rios said she participated in a Math Club for elementary school students in her hometown of Scottsbluff.
“By developing the patience to teach little kids, I’m developing skills I might use if I decide to become a doctor,” she said.
At the Crete Public Library, Saline County 4-H Associate Eric Stehlik watched the Husker students interact with youngsters.
“We only have a day or two before school starts up again,” he said. “I imagine Mom and Dad are glad to get their children out of the house for a while.”
Rios assisted a student who was stumped about how to put together his little telescope.
“You still have to do a little thinking,” she gently said.
“You mean we have to work?” said Sam, 11.
“But I have school tomorrow!” protested third-grader Audrey, 8.