Just a few minutes into Dan Carter’s physics and engineering presentation in Jevon Lulf and Tammy Baldry’s classroom at the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch’s Yellowstone Academy, the kids were already hooked.
“This is so cool,” exclaimed a young girl as she held up an X-ray of a pipe at the ExxonMobil Billings refinery to the light overhead.
Wednesday was Carter’s final presentation in a month-long series of weekly visits to the 30 or so students at the Yellowstone Academy’s summer session, on the YBGR campus at 1732 72nd St. W., in which he taught about science using discussions and hands-on activities.
It’s part of Exxon’s Science Ambassador Program, which sends employee volunteers into classrooms to teach kids about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“We’re all about elevating interest in math and science on a personal level wherever we can,” said Carter, the Billings refinery’s public and government affairs director. “I tie the lessons into what the teachers are doing as a supplement to their curriculum, not a replacement. I accept the kids for who they and where they are in the learning continuum — as young, curious scientists — and go from there.”
They Yellowstone Academy is the school for youth at YBGR — area residential youth who are there for treatment for severe emotional disturbances, autism and other issues — and offers a therapeutic K-12 school environment.
The summer session is for area students, allowing them to be bussed to the property and back home each day instead of staying at YBGR.
Wednesday’s lesson focused mostly on engineering. After showing the students — this group of a half-dozen represent grades five through eight — the pipe X-rays, Carter gave them a quick physics and engineering primer before turn them into engineers themselves.
Using small marshmallows and uncooked strands of spaghetti, the kids busied themselves with trying to build the tallest structures they could, creating supports, crossbeams and joints to keep it all standing while chattering with Carter about their ideas.
“If you combine your ides, sometimes they get better,” said one of the students. “Put it all together and, voila!”
Mike Sullivan, the Yellowstone Academy’s superintendent and director of education, said that Carter does one presentation each for the elementary, middle school and high school-aged students during his visits and that the kids look forward to it each week.
“Oh, it’s worked,” he said. “What’s really cool is they come in, they’re fresh and they’re excited. It’s tailored to each of the age groups.”
Other presentations focused on chemistry, rocks and geology and the origins of oil and gas, including the natural processes that create them.
Carter said he also ties into each lesson information about career possibilities involving the science the kids are learning.
“What engineers do is they fix problems and we’ve got this problem here that needs to be fixed,” he told the class Wednesday, pointing at piles of uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows. “Today, guess what you guys are going to do. You’re going to become engineers.”
After about 30 minutes trial-and-error, with some tips here and there from Carter, each student had a small structure built on a classroom table.
Some rose more than 18 inches off of the table while others spread out at the same length and others still were short, sturdy frames. By the time Carter was ready to leave, he was met with few cries of “you’re going already?” as well as requests to dig into the building materials.
“By now, I’m just eating the marshmallows,” one student said.
It’s the first time locally that the Exxon program has been presented as a series, instead of a standalone visit to a classroom.
“I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t love science,” Carter said. “We’re helping kids understand what science is all about and every step of the way we talk about careers.”
Sullivan said the hands-on nature of the presentations, which all include experiments or activities, combined with the way they all link together has been a big benefit to the students.
“It gets total captivation from the kids,” he said. “They all like it. Rather than just making something, they’re also understanding how it’s made.”