Givens Elementary Fourth Graders Spend a Day at Webster

Professor Mary Lai Preuss helps fourth graders extract DNA from a strawberryPhoto: Professor Mary Lai Preuss helps fourth graders extract DNA from a strawberry.

On April 3, fourth graders from Givens Elementary School in Webster Groves spent their “first day of college” at Webster University. Thirty-seven students and their teachers conversed with avatars and created dragons in the School of Education, took a ballet class in the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, conducted experiments in the College of Science and Health and ate lunch with their other “fellow” college students in Marletto’s cafeteria. 

The visit was the first for Givens, but the renewal of a long-running project in the School of Education to introduce children to the concept of college at an early age. For over a decade prior to lockdown, fourth graders from River Roads Lutheran School in Baden, Missouri enjoyed annual campus visits. Transportation issues, staffing changes, and the pandemic brought an end to those visits, but Kate Northcott, director of Webster’s Student Literacy Corps in the School of Education, used them as a template for this new group of 10-year-olds. Studies have shown that children who would be first-generation college students are more likely to pursue education as adults if they are exposed to college prior to middle school. 

“Givens’s principal and teachers supported this visit, and their students had a blast, but the most enthusiastic participants may have been Webster faculty, students, and staff,” said Northcott. “Everyone was extremely generous with their time and knowledge They made our guests feel very welcome.” 

The day began with students’ and teachers’ arrival to the School of Education where Interim Dean Stephanie Mahfood demonstrated the school’s virtual Mursion software. Mursion is an online teaching tool where future teachers can interact with virtual students during different situations. In the case of the Givens students, the fourth graders held conversations with the screen avatars, asking them about their hobbies, favorite foods, and pets.

The Givens students were also shown the School of Education’s 3-D printers in the “Maker Space” on the second floor of Webster Hall. There, they loaded up a virtual model of a dragon and watched as the printer slowly turned it from a digital concept into a real model they could touch. As it printed, Sheila Anglin Jordan, Director of Field Experiences, lead students in a lively discussion as she showed examples of other uses for 3-D printing, such as in creating houses and prosthetics.

Fourth Graders from Givens Elementary practice ballet alongside Webster students.Photo: Fourth Graders from Givens Elementary practice ballet alongside Webster students.

From there, the students headed to the Dance Studio in the Loretto-Hilton Center. The children learned basic moves such as the First Position, the Cambrè Back and the Demi Pliè, while ballet instructor Ellen Isom also told the children a bit about the history of ballet. 

After the hour-long workout in the dance studio, the children headed to Marletto’s for lunch. There, they ate with Webster students, some of whom had donated Gorlok bucks to cover the costs of the lunches, Northcott said.

A Givens Elementary student shows off strands of DNA extracted from a strawberry.The day ended with the children working on lab experiments run by Professors Nicole Miller-Struttmann, Stephanie Schroeder, Lindsey Applegate and Mary Lai Preuss. The professors guided the students through various models of pollination, helped them extract DNA from strawberries, and learned how indicators can be used to determine the acidity of a solution based on color changes. During those sessions, the children had hundreds of other questions, from “why is there is shower in the lab?” (its’ for an emergency dousing in case of a chemical spill) to “why are there benches with hoods and pull-down windows on them?” (to capture fumes and to keep samples clean). Photo: A Givens Elementary student shows off strands of DNA extracted from a strawberry.

Overall, the day was a success. After the visit, Sarah Aguilar, a licensed school counselor from Givens who accompanied the children on the trip, wrote to Webster staff: “The kids had a great time yesterday and I heard a lot of ‘I can't wait to go to college’ and ‘I want to go here!’ That was the goal!”

The faculty and staff at Webster are now gearing up to do this all again. On April 17, fifth graders from Givens will visit the campus for their “first day at college.”

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