Following are Q & A’s with three Washington University students who are contributing their mentorship and dedication to local classrooms.
Ken Zheng – Speaking musically
As a freshman, Ken Zheng, a computer science student in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, founded Making Music Matters, which offered free violin lessons to students in one local school. Every year the program has grown, adding more schools, more volunteers and more instruments.
Why did you start Making Music Matters?
Zheng: I’ve played violin since fourth grade and it’s something I truly love. I wanted to find a new way to share it.
So does making music really matter?
Zheng: I could talk about the studies and statistics that show that playing an instrument increases your SAT verbal scores and decreases dropout rates. But what’s rewarding to me is seeing the students get really excited about the music and wanting to take the instruments home so they can practice. They get lost in the music.
What kind of music do you teach the students?
Zheng: At the beginning of the semester, we’ll ask the students what kind of music they listen to and it’s usually pop or some sort of rap I don’t recognize. So the challenge is to come up with a version of that piece that’s at a beginner level. It’s fun because we get to go on this musical journey with them.
Deborah Sherman – Improving St. Louis schools
As a senior, Deborah Sherman, an educational studies and psychology major in Arts & Sciences, helped recruit, train and manage some 75 volunteer tutors at KIPP Inspire Academy, a St. Louis charter middle school. The tutors visit every week, helping students master KIPP’s accelerated curriculum of math, science and communication arts. Their hard work is paying off — KIPP students have shown gains in standardized test scores and have been accepted into the region’s best college-prep schools.
What is the difference between being a tutor and being a mentor?
Sherman: We help them realize that they can do more than they think they can do or maybe more than they’ve been told they can do. We’re there not only to help them with homework but to help them see what’s possible.
What is the trick to tutoring students in middle school?
Sherman: It’s important to humble yourself and realize that they have a ton of other things going on in their lives. I try to remember what it was like to be in middle school and what kind of things I liked to talk about.
So do you have to be good at math to be a tutor?
Sherman: It’s funny because they have learned math differently so I’ve had to ask them to explain the strategies they use. But we get through it. I always tell friends that if you’ve been through middle school, you can be a middle school tutor.
Elaine Khoong – Inspiring an interest in science
Elaine Khoong, who will receive her MD and a master of science in clinical investigation, is dedicated to eliminating inequities in science education. Khoong helped coordinate an outreach program that brings medical students to classrooms in St. Louis public schools to encourage students’ interest in medicine. She also organized a field trip so high school students could experience life as medical students.
Khoong also helped create a mentorship program — the Young Scientist Program’s Continuing Mentoring Program — that pairs medical and graduate students with high school students to help build interest in science throughout their high school years.
What led you to start the Young Scientist mentoring program?
Khoong: By college, fewer students from disadvantaged, at-risk communities enter STEM fields. We were hoping to make a dent in this disparity by pairing interested freshman high school students with graduate and medical students. The unique aspect of this program is the long-term relationship component. Having a continuous mentor can make a difference for students in their formative years.
What techniques have worked in encouraging interest in STEM among high schoolers?
Khoong: Each student faces different barriers when it comes to entering a STEM-related field. One barrier is inspiring interest in science. This is where exposing students to exciting hands-on science opportunities as well as providing role models in science can make a difference.
What have you learned through these experiences?
Khoong: That it’s the small things that really matter. Students who have even just one person who will fight for them, believe in them and build up their confidence are immensely better positioned to succeed than those who have been let down frequently by those in their lives. It really only takes one person to make a difference. That’s what I try to carry with me every day.