Exposing children to science before they have stopped asking questions about the world around them is something of a mission for Elva O’Sullivan, who started the website www.sciencewithme.com in 2002. With a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from University College Dublin, a doctorate from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, and young children of her own aged 7, 5, and 4, O’Sullivan is keenly aware of how primed wee ones are for scientific discovery. “For very young children,” she observes, “I think there is big window of opportunity.”
While her husband was working on his doctorate in computer science and mathematics at Princeton University, a chance remark by her son at the New Horizons Montessori school about “conducting an experiment” got the teachers wondering about his parents.
They became acquainted with O’Sullivan at a ripe moment after American Cyanamid, where she had been working, had been taken over and closed, and they asked her if she would be interested in teaching a science program for young kids, ages four to six.
She had other ideas about the direction of her career at that moment. She had been thinking about combining her business and science backgrounds to do cross-cultural coaching, and she felt that teaching a class would take away time she didn’t have. But the woman was persistent, telling her, “we have loads of kids who want to do it.”
That plea stayed with O’Sullivan, and she found she wasn’t able to sleep for the next two days. The insomnia spoke to her, and she realized that teaching young children “was where my heart would be and what I would enjoy.”
As she started to investigate how teachers taught science to very young kids, she didn’t like what she saw. “They always tell you the theory first, and then that this theory has an application,” she says. “It is better to have children figure out the problem and come up with the theory later. That’s how scientists do it.”
Take density, which is theoretically defined as mass over volume. “I never understood why that was useful,” says O’Sullivan. “So I forget about teaching theory and came up with problems, and they tell me how to solve them.”
Her problems come in the form of stories. To teach about density, she told the children about a giraffe who needed to raise the level of water in a jar so that his shorter-necked friends could drink from it too. They discussed how to raise the water level and by how much.
The Science with Me program also involved the parents, as helpers. The children worked with calibrated balances, weighing and measuring accurately “like proper lab scientists,” O’Sullivan observes, but they needed the parents as adjuncts.
The program was successful, and soon Princeton Academy asked her to run the class as an after-school program. That was so successful that she added a second day.
Then she got the idea for the character of Mr. Heisenberg, her “good friend Albert” who would present scientific problems in a storytelling format on a video screen. She hired students to create animations on VHS, and she made 500 copies.
That was when she was approached by the outgoing president of Universal Home Studios, who wanted to do a joint venture with her. From her perspective, it was mostly a wasted effort, although she did realize what a considerable investment the company would require.
The lawyers got involved, and they wanted to split ownership, leaving her with only half the company. But O’Sullivan wasn’t convinced. Yes, 50 percent of something great would be better than zero percent of nothing, but what if things didn’t go well? She didn’t want to lose everything, and when she asked whether the idea could go back to her if the venture didn’t work out, she did not get a positive response.
When the negotiations were over, she made a decision to put everything she had done so far on the web.
O’Sullivan’s business model is to believe that excellence will win out. “I don’t advertise,” she says. “I keep it clean and high quality. If it’s a quality thing, I feel people will come to it.” And it has certainly been popular for home schoolers, she says.
But the effort and resources the website requires are not small. “When my own kids ask questions” — she remembers one asking after losing a first tooth, “Is it alive when it came out? — “I think about how would I teach that to them,” she says. She likes to make up silly stories – “my creative outlet,” she says.
When O’Sullivan has an idea she wants to develop into an animation for the website, she follows a similar approach. She begins either by talking to her husband — also an educator who is now lecturing at University College Dublin and serving as director of a new research laboratory — or writing a rhyme. To teach standard measurement units, she wrote a poem about a king, with a very big nose, and 10 very long smelly toes. Originally, as the poem relates, a yard was measured from the nose to the tip of the hand, and a foot was, well, a foot. The poem goes on to say, “What a ridiculous thing, that measurements depend on the size of our king. This system of measurement is just not very rational. We need a more accurate Systeme International” (abbreviated S.I. from the French Le Systeme International D’unit). Their solution, of course, was meters.
When O’Sullivan finishes a poem, she sends it to an illustrator in Argentina whom she found by putting an ad on an Internet site. Before selecting him, she spent time in chat rooms, looked at recommendations, put up ads, and reviewed artists’ work. His work, she says, “had a cartoony look that I love.” She wanted the style to appeal to young kids. “I had to take these boring concepts and make them interesting,” she says.
The illustrator and O’Sullivan “go back and forth a hundred times,” she says, to get exactly the right look. When she is satisfied, she sends the pictures to an animator. For this animation, she used one in Indonesia, but she has them in several different countries.
“It’s an expensive process,” observes O’Sullivan about the creation of each three-to-five-minute-long animated sequence that teaches a scientific concept. “I pay for this myself.”
“Just to do one,” she says, “costs thousands.” Then she jokes that she is running a “for loss” operation. She does have a “day job” to support her habit; she’s a project manager in a math institute. And after an initial creative burst, she has slowed down a bit, figuring she can manage only one or two topics a year.
“If had a lot of money,” she adds, “I could do a lot more.” But she is careful and learned, in a course on starting your own business, that the main reason people go out of business is that they run out of money.
For now, she is satisfied because “what I create is there for good.” Another way she justifies her expenditures is that the site “is a gift for my children.” She could, after all, be spending thousands on tutoring for the same effect.
O’Sullivan tries to tie her themes to everyday life. When Charlotte’s Web was at the movies, for example, the children learned that Charlotte was nocturnal, and her kids started talking about nocturnal people who stayed up all night. The result on her site? A worksheet on nocturnal animals. For Halloween she sent out an animation about Stanley, the skeleton, who teaches children the names of their bones, and now she’s working on a unit about the heart for Valentine’s Day.
The site also includes a small book that answers the question, “Where does my food go when I eat?” The hero, Tavish McTiny, is a little guy in a town where a wizard has cast a spell and shrunk people to a small size. Because they can’t trade or get food, they are doomed to die.
To break the spell, McTiny had to break the alphabetic rule by touching a part of body that began with every letter of the alphabet. This requires, of course, getting inside an adult body. “Lots of adventures happen to him on the way,” says O’Sullivan, and as the child is reading the book with a parent, they tick off body parts, one by one, in a list in the back of the book — thereby actively helping McTiny to save his town.
A visual learner herself, O’Sullivan has been concerned since the beginning of her science teaching career that teachers were not offering these young children the chance to color what they were learning about. As a result, the site includes work sheets that parents can print off for children to color; these sheets are the most inexpensive of the educational tools on her site.
For parents who haven’t kept up with scientific terminology, it is often difficult to answer their children’s questions, so O’Sullivan tries to “give parents the language. When they see it, the parents remember everything from school.” Her goal is to “give them a mechanism to teach science to their kids and learn together.”
The site also includes science experiments that she has done with her own kids that parents and children can do together to support the learning process.
O’Sullivan’s father was an economist and her mother a social worker. She and her husband and children are in Ireland, for now, but they still have a house in Ewing, and the Science With Me business is incorporated in New Jersey.
For the moment, O’Sullivan sees the website as something fun to do with her family. Her passion, she says, is getting to learn things again with her children as they learn them for the first time. “`Learn with me’ is the whole idea,” she says.
But she also enjoys being an activist in their learning as she works to make the material not only more interesting for them, but to initiate them into science when they are young. By the time they are 9 or 10, she says, children start thinking that science is hard, or the girls begin saying, “That’s for boys.” O’Sullivan wants to get them “before they even know they are learning.”
— Michele Alperin
Science With Me! LLC, Box 2016, Princeton 08543; 609-249-3937. Elva O’Sullivan. www.sciencewithme.com