Children peering into their futures – this is rocket science

Exploring science and health professions helps children in underprivileged neighborhoods expand possibilities

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Nazli Kocyigit, a student at the IMC Weekend School, displays the bottle rocket she made in astronomy class. (Photography by Alison Bert)

Sumala Heinze still remembers the day she learned about the Weekend School in her fifth-grade class. After school, she dashed home to get her mother’s signature on the permission slip. “I never ran so fast,” she recalled. “And I just put it there and said to my mom, ‘Just sign please – just sign!’

“I wanted to be a police officer, and I thought maybe the Weekend School could show me how it was,” she said.

It did, but what happened after that took her by surprise.

Many children have a ready answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Their dream profession may be inspired by the work of a parent or family friend or a favorite TV character. And it can often motivate them to work harder in school.

But some children, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, are rarely exposed to scientists or get in-depth insight into daily life in the health professions.   

So on a recent Sunday at the IMC Weekend School in Amsterdam, the children learned about astronomy and rocket science from a researcher and an engineer.

Dr. Marcel Vonk teaches students about black holes and gravity. Looking on from the front row are Marieke Struijk van Bergen, who organizes lessons for the weekend school, and Ylann Schemm, Program Director of the Elsevier Foundation.

With Dr. Marcel Vonk, a researcher and outreach officer for the Institute of Physics at the University of Amsterdam, students learned about gravitational waves and black holes. “A black hole is really a very heavy star,” Dr. Vonk explained, speaking in Dutch. “It’s so heavy that not even light can escape, which makes it very hard because with no light, you cannot see it.”

Then the students asked questions. Scientific questions such as, “Why are planets round?” (“Because of gravity, they try to pull everything as close to the center as possible. A round thing is just more efficient.”) And a more pressing question: “How much money do you make?” To which Dr. Vonk replied, “Enough but not as much as a professional soccer player.”

Guest teacher Alexander Maas, a thermal engineer, helps students put the finishing touches on their bottle rockets.

“The students are very enthusiastic, but at the same time, they keep you sharp,” said the other guest teacher, Alexander Maas, a thermal engineer for Airbus Defense and Space. “If you don’t engage with the students, they turn you off – or they tell you straight up, ‘This is boring.’”

No one used the b-word or nodded off during their lessons on this Sunday. In his session, Maas helped students put the principles of aerodynamics into practice. They built rockets from plastic soda bottles and launching them outside with the help of a bicycle pump.

Students launch their bottle rockets using a bicycle pump and launch pad.

Blast-off!

Hands-on learning with the pros is the idea behind the Weekend School, an extracurricular program for children in underprivileged neighborhoods, many from immigrant backgrounds. For the 3-year course, professionals in a wide range of fields volunteer to introduce students to their careers with hands-on activities.

“Many of these children don't have the resources and opportunities to explore more of the world and connect with people with different professional backgrounds,” said Marieke Struijk van Bergen, a former elementary school teacher who organizes lessons at the Weekend School in Amsterdam West. There, she said, many of the children are from Morocco and Turkey:

They have the same intelligence as the native Dutch children in more advantaged neighborhoods, but they don’t have the same exposure. That’s why we want to give them the opportunity to experience different jobs. The children can see, ‘Oh I can do a lot with my life. I could be a doctor or a lawyer.’

How the schools work

Funded by corporations and other organizations, the Weekend Schools rely largely on volunteers. Staff coordinators train guest teachers to develop lessons and teach classes, where they are assisted by staff, alumni and other volunteers.

Some of the classes are on site, and others take students into the field. During the Health unit, students visited a hospital, used stethoscopes to monitor their pulses and even helped perform pregnancy ultrasounds.

Supporting underserved children STEM

Students build bottle rockets in the astronomy class at the Weekend School, with a hand from Ylann Schemm, Program Director of the Elsevier Foundation.

To help underserved children get greater exposure to science and health education, the Elsevier Foundation is donating $100,000 over four years to the IMC Weekend School. In addition, many of Elsevier’s employees volunteer to help out in the classroom.

Empowering Unexplored KnowledgeAt Elsevier, we’re passionate about encouraging the next generation of scientists and health professionals. That’s why we support programs like the IMC Weekend School and similar programs around the world, often in the locations where Elsevier employees are based and can volunteer. Through hands-on activities, children learn about STEM careers first-hand with professionals as their guides, sparking their natural curiosity and empowering them to dream bigger by encountering the unexplored.

For more stories about people and projects empowered by knowledge, we invite you to visit Empowering Knowledge.

The grant is part of a larger Elsevier Foundation program called Diversity and Inclusion in STM, which includes several partnerships to help underserved children. In London, the White City Maker Challenge offers 14- to 18-year-olds from one of London’s most disadvantaged urban communities the chance to do hands-on projects in science, engineering and design through workshops, after-school clubs, mentoring and project teams. In New York, the city’s most underserved youth can attend the After-School STEM Mentoring Program of the New York Academy of Sciences, which is expanding with funding from the Elsevier Foundation.

“What all these programs have in common is their commitment to stimulate and encourage the next generation of young scientists and health professionals,” said Ylann Schemm, Program Director of the Elsevier Foundation.

In many instances, Elsevier’s employees with their own science, health, technology and business backgrounds volunteer for these programs through the company’s global community program, RE Cares. At the Weekend School, Elsevier colleagues are there to help students and teachers alike.

Alice Ho Siew Lian, a Customer Service Manager at Elsevier, volunteers at the Weekend School.

Maybe surgery is not for me after all …

The chance to explore is what motivates many students at the Weekend School.

Eliskan Karayigit also started out wanting to be a police officer, but that changed when he became fascinated with architecture and “wanted to make beautiful buildings.”

“I really liked getting to know all these professions, not so much to make a choice but to get inspiration for later,” said Eliskan, an alumnus at 14.

Vivika Acharya, 10, said one of the most important things she has learned is that “you always have to follow your instincts about what you think you would like to do.” For her, that means being a doctor; it’s always been important for her to help people, she said, and participating in the Health unit only strengthened her desire to work in a hospital.

For some students, the Weekend School shows them what they don’t want to be. Sumala, now an alumna at 21, realized she was probably too trusting to be a police officer, where she would have to make snap decisions about whether a suspect was telling the truth. And despite encouragement from a visiting judge, she also learned that law requires too much technical reading.

Ayoub Aakouk, 11, constructs a bottle rocket in astronomy class.Now she’s majoring in aviation studies at the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam with plans to become an air traffic controller.

Meanwhile, Ayoub Aakouk, 11, added “space” to his list of career possibilities alongside “medicine.” In the Health unit, he said, he was fascinated when a surgeon explained how to operate on people, but Ayoub quickly realized that cutting was not for him. So he decided he would prefer to be “a doctor to make people feel better.”

“I have a much better idea of what I want to do,” he said, “but I also get to check out other professions.”

The inspiration behind the Weekend School

Heleen Terwijn, a psychologist who founded the Weekend School, helps students build bottle rockets for the astronomy lesson.

Since opening its doors in 1998, the Weekend School has grown to 10 branches in the Netherlands and three in Brussels. At the heart of the program is a desire to cultivate children’s natural curiosity and motivation, which tends to decline during adolescence, said the school’s founder, psychologist Heleen Terwijn. Her inspiration for the school stemmed from her own research. After completing her master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam, Terwijn stayed on to do a longitudinal study on emotion and motivation. She focused on Amsterdam Southeast, the first large immigrant neighborhood in the Netherlands, looking into how the young newcomers envisioned their futures in the society.

“I was shocked by the results,” she said. “First of all, I was positively struck by the enthusiasm of most 10-year-old children. It’s a very curious age group; children at age 10 basically want to explore the world in an untroubled way; they’re enthusiastic to discover everything.”

But that changed as she followed them for 2-and-a-half years:

In many, many cases, I saw their motivation go down. And I saw depression coming in, or I saw disruptive roots entering in their life stories. At 10, they had all kinds of childish but also positive dreams for their futures, and these all went away. And reflecting on that, I thought, if you don’t experience at home or at school positive input for how to build your future – I always say ‘vitamins for your mind’ or ‘vitamins for your fantasies’ – it’s really hard to stay positive. So I thought we can change that by building an inspiring environment for children where they meet with people who are doing interesting work in society.

She realized that would be a full-time job, so she took the bold move to leave her job at the university and set out to build the organization that would support the school. She founded it in collaboration with the trading firm IMC (International Marketmakers Combination).

Studying the impact scientifically

Studying the experience of alumni has become a key part of evaluating the impact of the program. This year, Terwijn helped conduct an impact study with colleagues at the University of Amsterdam, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and IMC Weekend School. Comparing alumnis’ responses to those of control groups, the researchers found that Weekend School alumni performed significantly higher in areas such as self-esteem, motivation and social connectedness. Now, Terwijn and her Weekend School colleagues are looking into expanding into regular public school education.


Watch a video about the IMC Weekend School


Building a Global Network

The IMC Weekend School is seeking to expand globally, starting with other European countries. The organization is searching for social entrepreneurs to set up Weekend Schools in their own communities. Target areas are underprivileged or immigrant neighborhoods in larger cities. For more information, visit the IMC Weekend School website or email info@weekendschool.nl.

To volunteer at the IMC Weekend School

The Weekend School is always looking for people to volunteer – as guest teachers or staff trainers or to help out in the classroom. Professional sponsors are also welcome. To inquire, email info@weekendschool.nl.

Rocket launch class - IMC Weekendschool

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