A-MAN program offers children hands-on lessons

CHAMPAIGN – Hey, this science stuff is pretty cool.

That's the word from students in the local chapter of the African-American Male Achievers Network, or A-MAN. The after-school science program, started last fall, aims to help primarily disadvantaged kids learn to enjoy chemistry, physics and the like and to start looking to the sciences for viable career options.

"A lot of our students are scared of science," said Jerrod Henderson, who started the local chapter. "We try to make it fun and interesting."

Henderson, a University of Illinois doctoral candidate in chemical engineering, is a member of the alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which runs the program with its undergraduate chapter. The dozen or so students in A-MAN meet twice a month at Stratton Elementary School in Champaign during the UI semesters.

The program has already got seventh-grader Fred Wallace Jr. hooked. When he grows up, he wants to be a science teacher.

His sister, fifth-grader Benicia, wants to be a surgeon.

Both Wallaces said the A-MAN program has taught them a lot of about science – and they love the experiments.

"Mostly in science (class) we just read about it," Benicia said.

Not here.

Classes consists of lots of hands-on experimentation. "We look for it to be interactive, because the students get bored easily," Henderson said. "I get them involved in an experiment. ... Once they see it's working ... then I give them my little scientific spiel."

Each class has a different facilitator, who teaches based on his or her area of expertise. Volunteers work with the students – who can be in first through 12th grade – to guide them through experiments, letting the kids do the work.

Fred particularly loved the experiment that had students making "something like a Lava Lamp," he said. "We learned how to put different stuff together to make lights."

Benicia liked the experiment where the kids poured water over drawings made with a black marker and saw the black color separate into a spectrum of hues. "It made a rainbow," she said.

"Black is made out of a lot of different colors," Fred added.

Danis Pelmore has found that since his son, Danis Jr., has started A-MAN, "he's asking a lot more questions."

The dad is also happy that the program is giving kids career paths to science.

"A lot of African-American kids are heavy into sports and entertainment," Pelmore said. "They lose the focus on the core skills that they need."

Almeda Wright works with many of the A-MAN participants in her role as program director of the 21st Century Learning Center at Stratton. She's seen a difference in students' knowledge already.

"They can explain what a polymer is because they actually know," she said. "They're able to explain it to other kids."

Wright has also seen a change in A-MAN students attitudes toward the sciences.

"A lot of them thought of the lab coats," she said. "Now they think it's cool."

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