Tutoring program educates and improves the lives of school children

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Kelli O'Brien ’22 performs a chemistry experiment at an elementary school.
    Kelli O'Brien ’22 and other members of Willamette's Chemistry Club perform an experiment at Bush Elementary School in Salem. The Chemistry Club visited the school as part of the after-school program run by the university's Tiger Club, which has been running for 18 years now.

Willamette undergrads make connections with local students through Tiger Club.

Dressed in a blue lab coat, Kelli O’Brien ’22 slowly lowers a small black cauldron overflowing with smoke to the floor.

A small group of young students seated in the Bush Elementary School gym peer at it as she explains the smoke is liquid nitrogen. Members of Willamette’s Chemistry Club, also wearing blue lab coats, stand behind O’Brien with carts holding fun objects for experiments, including several balloons.

One by one, O’Brien drops several balloons into the cauldron. She asks, “How many balloons do you think will fit in here?”

“All of them!” some students yell.

They were right, and O’Brien explained why — the liquid nitrogen chilled the air molecules, causing them to lose energy and turn into a liquid form that shrank the balloons. With a pair of tongs, she pulled the lopsided shapes into room temperature again, and the latex crackled as it returned to its former shape.

Serving students and the community

The exciting demonstration is one example of what Willamette students offer in Tiger Club, an after-school program they organize for Bush Elementary School in Salem.

With a majority of Bush Elementary students identified by administrators as needing academic intervention, the school sought Willamette volunteers after it lost its after-school academic enrichment program in 2007. 

Nico Sacco ’21, program co-coordinator, says the club — named after the Bush Elementary mascot — provides children with more than a fun break. For nearly 18 years, Willamette students have visited the school twice a week to tutor students in reading, math or science. 

Sacco wants Tiger Club to expand into a supplementary literary program. He’s been working with the school to identify student academic needs based on their test scores, and Willamette’s Asian Coalition for Equality recently shared revenue from a fundraiser to buy English and Spanish books for Bush students.

Like other programs through the university’s Office of Community Service Learning, Tiger Club encourages students’ sense of civic responsibility and combines community service with written reflection to enrich the experience. Sacco initially joined it for this very reason.

“Coming to Willamette, I knew I was passionate about education and finding a way to make a difference in the world,” he says. “I was raised with the belief that it’s my responsibility to help those with less.”

Fun with acetone and Alka Seltzer

Participation in Tiger Club has an added benefit for Willamette Chemistry Club members, as younger students see that science experiments can be really fun.

Students have watched acetone melt styrofoam cups, Alka Seltzer fuel rockets and alcohol vapor “clouds” squeeze out of soda bottles.

To the delight of students (and adults) at their recent visit, O’Brien poured liquid nitrogen on the floor, creating long, billowing strands of smoke chased by clear droplets that scattered then disappeared.

Beyond the educational components, O’Brien and Sacco love interacting with students and getting involved with the community.

Sacco says, “It’s just a good way to make a connection — and a meaningful one.”

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