Michal Melamede, a computer scientist turned science promoter, went to a French school when she moved from Tel Aviv to New York City with her family at age 8 or 9. The school followed the French system, and Melamede found herself in the science rather than the humanities track. “We did a lot of repetitive learning, and it was much more theoretical,” she recalls. “I got very good at solving things but never did things hands on.”
Then, as she watched her children, now 10, 21, and 23, make their way through the Princeton public schools, Melamede saw something that didn’t make her very happy. “I noticed as my kids were growing older, they were less inclined to do science,” she says. “They were interested when they were very young, but by the time they got to middle school, it wasn’t cool to do it.”
Melamede and her husband, Michel Debiche, a Stanford alumnus who has a PhD in geophysics from Princeton, had talked for a long time about doing something to get children interested in science. They were spurred to take action in 2008, having watched as their youngest child absorbed everything around him. “We noticed he was a sponge; the same way he was learning language he could learn any concept,” she said.
Two big ideas came together in the creation of ScienceSeeds, which offers classes in four-to-eight week one-hour sessions; week-long summer camp sessions; birthday parties; and workshops on weekends and days children are off from school.
The first idea is the value of making things. “When you do science with your hands, you make the connection with the fact that science is everywhere around you,” says Melamede. And this has a corollary: “You can make a lot of stuff and you don’t have to be in an expensive lab with expensive equipment.”
The second big idea that ScienceSeeds tries to convey to children is the value of making mistakes. “A lot of learning has to do with getting things wrong,” says Melamede, noting that in science failure is an intrinsic part of the discovery process. If you have an idea that doesn’t work, you go back and try it again.
But Melamede maintains that children aren’t learning this important lesson. “The schools don’t let you do that — they don’t have time; they judge you on whether you passed the test or didn’t, at least in elementary school. Failure is an important component of learning, but it is not one that is really pushed,” she says.
ScienceSeeds counters this paradigm by encouraging children to try things if they have an idea. If it doesn’t work the first time, the instructors at ScienceSeeds may ask, “Is it a bad idea, or did you do something wrong?” And they encourage a child to persevere.
Melamede and her husband, who is the organization’s chief scientist, have drawn in a range of people who are passionate about getting children interested in science, from a physics student at Rutgers to Princeton science teachers to their eldest son, Alon, 23, graduating this year from Carleton College with a degree in international relations. Says his mother: “He has always been interested in how military technology and inventions make their way into the mainstream. Alon is an avid hiker and outdoor explorer and integrates his many interests into his teaching, thus showing students that science can be found where you least expect it.”
The other instructors on the cover of this issue are Bri Tobey, who has a B.A in English and psychology and hopes to pursue a career in early childhood education; and Lindsay Howell, who has a degree in biology and, says Melamede, “likes taking kids through the process of trial and error that eventually leads them to understanding how things work.” Howell is also working on adding new workshops in biology, environmental sciences, and chemistry
Says Melamede of her staff: “They are people who want to get kids to think science is fun and not this awful thing they have to do at school that is not interesting.”
ScienceSeeds uses a multi-layered scientific process with its students. First, says Melamede, “we get the kids to look at something and go ‘wow, this seems like magic.’” Observation, experimentation, and careful thought follow, allowing the kids understand the science behind the magic. “Then,” Melamede explains, “it is ‘Ah-ha, now I understand why it is working.’” Finally, the children come to understand the power of knowledge, and they take that knowledge and do something new and different with it.
Once they make something, the children are connected with its inner workings, so Melamede likes to ask them, “What do you do with something that breaks?” When they quickly answer, “Throw it out,” she reminds them: “Now, since you made it, you can also fix it.”
When exploring circuits with really young kids, for example, showing them how to put together a simple circuit that turns on a light and runs a motor yields the “wow” moment. An explanation follows and then the project: Instructors ask the children to take materials like foam board and cardboard and, with the help of a circuit and motor, create something that moves.
Melamede suggests that today this focus on creating something is unusual, but valuable, and is coming back. “We are not used to making something anymore, but I think there is a big return to a ‘maker’ movement,” she says. So her classes are all very hands on, with kids doing a project or putting something together. They often make toys, some examples being pinball machines and kaleidoscopes.
“We’re always looking for new things to do with them,” she says, noting that ScienceSeeds recently bought three-dimensional printers and are now figuring out how to use them with the children.
The audience of ScienceSeeds is kindergarten through sixth and seventh graders. “We tend to get mostly younger kids, but we would like to get more older kids,” says Melamede.
The subjects of the week-long summer camps run the gamut: electronics, buildings and bridges, cars and boats, robotics, and Harry Potter science. They also cover the science behind kids’ toys and the inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci, and they run a design class where they have kids invent something, define it using prototyping tools, and then try to build it. “We mostly like to do things where they have to build things, try things out, and then try them again,” says Melamede.
ScienceSeeds has also learned along the way. When instructors tried to teach formulas in a physics class, the kids’ response was, “Ach, this is like school.” And so, says Melamede, “we do formulas without formulas: What do we do if this is heavier? How much force will you have to apply? The goal is to make them very comfortable and have an intuitive feel for how things work; if they understand how it works, it makes formulas easier to use as they get older.”
ScienceSeeds’ camps are relatively small, with not more than 22 children during any one session and a 1:6 or 1:7 ratio of staff to kids.
ScienceSeeds has worked with many area schools, including the French-American School, all the Princeton elementary schools, the YWCA, and after-school programs in Lawrence and Montgomery. The group has also been asked to run morning and afternoon sessions in the half-day kindergartens in West Windsor-Plainsboro.
Melamede went to college at Stanford University. Because Stanford had no undergraduate major in computer science at the time, she did her degree in logic, then went on to do a masters in computer science at Columbia University. For many years she had a software company and wrote trading systems.
About her new profession, Melamede says, “I like the creative side — trying to come up with things for kids to make, seeing what they come up with, giving them something open ended.” She also appreciates the children “who know more than I will ever know about certain things.”
The camp recently expanded into space at Emmons Drive in West Windsor, and more expansion may be in store: “We have had requests to take the program overseas as well as bring it to other locations both within and outside of New Jersey and are looking at how we could do that. In addition, we are looking to commercialize some of the projects we have made as people have asked us if we would sell them our kits, and we are very excited about that prospect.”
Melamede emphasizes again the importance of things not working the first time they are tried. “I think that is really lost in this whole educational system and the way people do things these days. They are not allowed to make mistakes, and that is not the way things work.”
ScienceSeeds, 29 Emmons Drive Suite G-10, Box 228, Princeton. 917-453-1451. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.scienceseeds.com