Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives


Thinking SMArT

  • Jade Tinker helps an ESE student ask "how do rollercoasters work?"
    Jade Tinker helps an ESE student ask "how do rollercoasters work?"

Program helps elementary school students learn about the scientific process

It’s 5 p.m. on a Monday evening and the Fondren-Jones science building is buzzing with activity. It’s not Southwestern students trying to get their lab work done, though. It is a group of elementary school students who are trying to learn more about how science works. 

The students are participants in the SMArT program, which was started in 2007 by Romi Burks, an associate professor of biology at Southwestern. SMArT stands for Science and Math Achiever Teams. The program pairs Southwestern students with 3rd-5th grade students from Cooper Elementary School in Georgetown who are participating in the school’s Extended School Enrichment (ESE) program

Burks started SMArT to teach elementary students about the scientific process of inquiry. Student mentors from Southwestern guide the children through the process and help them explore topics that inspire them about science, from physics to biology. Although the program focuses on scientific research, Southwestern students from all majors are encouraged to apply to be mentors. 

“I saw a need for our students, particularly those in the sciences, to connect their academic interests with their interest in volunteering,” said Burks, who developed a similar program when she was a college student. “I thought a program like SMArT could give students a discipline-rooted experience that fit into their schedules and provided a real possibility for exchange. The ESE students get a chance to do a project, but the Southwestern students also get a chance to learn to translate their science knowledge to another scale.”

This semester, 12 students from Cooper Elementary are participating in the program. At their first meeting, the mentors help their students develop a testable question that must be discovered by experimentation and not by looking up a simple answer. The children are encouraged to develop their own questions based on their personal interests. This semester, students are exploring questions on diverse topics such as what causes brain freezes to how roller coasters work. 

In the nine weeks that follow, the students will investigate and test their questions. 

“This gives the children a chance to work with science one-on-one with someone else to help develop skills that they can use later in their educational careers,” said Mallory Forsyth, a first-year biology major and mentor. “They get special training they can’t get in a classroom setting.” 

The 10th week is the Achievement Party, at which the teams present their questions and findings to the public, both failures and successes. The party is similar to a science fair, in which teams will set up posters about their projects and talk to passers-by about what they learned and discovered. However, there is not the pressure and sense of competitiveness that often comes with science fairs. 

This semester’s Achievement Party will be held Monday, April 20th, at 5 p.m. in the Bishops Lounge on the first floor of the McCombs Campus Center. 

“In addition to giving the children a chance to talk about what they have learned, the Achievement Party gives us a chance to show the campus what SMArT does, raising awareness and inviting more students to join as future mentors,” said Jesse Barbour, a senior history major and SMArT mentor.

Each semester, one Southwestern student is selected to help Burks facilitate the SMArT program. Student mentors also have the option of signing up for an optional one-credit course with Suzy Pukys, director of civic engagement, in which they discuss their experience working with students. 

“SMArT has changed my perspectives about working with children,” Barbour said. “It has been good for me and is very important for kids. By the end of the semester, the kids can explain some difficult concepts fairly well.”

Last semester, Barbour and his mentee worked on a project in which they used candy bars to explain evolutionary theory. This semester, he and his mentee are building circuits with fruit. “This week we managed to power an alarm clock for nearly two hours using only six lemons as a battery,” Barbour said.  

For more information on the SMArT program, visit