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Sunday, June 20, 2021

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Richmond students bring community service to the classroom

There is a constant hum of noise at Henderson Middle School since the classrooms there are hardly classrooms at all. Each room looks more like an oversized cubicle, and the sounds from neighboring classrooms can be heard through walls that don't even reach the ceiling. But the background noise did not seem to bother the sixth grade students who were just excited to see the faces of University of Richmond students.

Paula Lessem, director of biology and the faculty adviser for the Richmond chapter of Camp Kesem, is bringing community service beyond clubs and into the classroom. The students in Lessem's class, Biology 103: Biology in Popular Culture, are pairing up to teach underprivileged middle school students about different controversial topics in biology.

Juniors Jordan Stewart and Sarah Loepp began their presentation on eugenics by giving the students a pre-test.

"They kept saying, 'Oh my god, I don't know this stuff!' and 'Will this affect our grade?'" Stewart said.

Loepp said: "At first they were kind of put off because it was foreign to them, but once we started teaching and they started making connections they got really excited."

But the middle school students weren't the only ones unfamiliar with eugenics. Neither Stewart nor Loepp are biology -- or any kind of science -- majors.

"We had no idea what we were doing until we researched it," said Stewart, a rhetoric and communication studies major and Latin American and Iberian studies minor.

But teaching a subject the Richmond students were unfamiliar with was part of their lesson, Lessem said.

"If you have to explain something to a population that doesn't have any background it makes you more confident and it makes you understand that piece of material greater," she said. "This gives everyone a chance to own the material."

After the lesson the students took the test a second time and their scores doubled.

"When we went over the answers, one guy was so disappointed," said Loepp, an international studies major and German minor. "He had gotten every question but the last one correct. But it really showed us that they hadn't checked out [during the lesson]."

Stewart said: "I didn't even have to look at the test to know they did better. They were just showing it with their attitudes."

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But Lessem said the students were doing more than just teaching when they walked into those classrooms: They were being role models.

"These are young, impressionable kids and when they see you having fun and being successful, they want to be like you," she told her class.

Eric Houdek and Esteban Hernandez, both accounting majors, said their lesson on the Tuskegee study had gone beyond biology and they even got the students thinking about college.

"I feel like it's important for them to know that they have the opportunity [to go to college]," Houdek said.

Stewart also said she thought it was important to answer questions about college to try to get the students thinking in that direction.

"I think it was really important for us to represent the University of Richmond and kind of be ambassadors in that regard," Loepp said. "So I hope we got some of them -- even if it was just for that day -- thinking about college."

By the end of the fall 2010 semester, 20 of Lessem's students will have presented 10 different topics to the middle school students.

"It's about giving back," Lessem said. "Peak their interests and stimulate their thinking. That's about all we can do in the confines of what we have."

Contact staff writer Kate MacDonnell at kate.macdonnell@richmond.edu

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