Club sets the stage for science learning

By Samantha Schmidt

​On a quiet evening in a nearly empty building, Maddy Valle adjusted the googly eyes on Georgia Grasshopper, and then made sure that every sequin and colorful pipe cleaner on the insect puppet was in place.

"Everything needs to be perfect, because our audience isn't afraid to let us know if they don't like what they see," said the senior biology education major from Elkhart, Ind.

Valle should know, because Georgia Grasshopper will perform for one tough crowd: fifth-graders who shout during shows when they see something they don't like. Valle is the treasurer of the Science Theater Outreach Program (STOP), a Purdue student organization that brings science-centered plays to elementary school audiences. Tom Turpin, professor of entomology, created the program after teaching a class that dealt with science, education and theater that required students to write, act and construct every aspect of a play they created. The course was so popular, Turpin encouraged students to form STOP so they could perform and adapt the plays beyond the classroom.

STOP members work hard to keep their audiences entertained and informed.

Maddy Valle, Allison Pfeifer and Kate Florek

Photo by Samantha Schmidt

(Clockwise from left) Maddy Valle, Allison Pfeifer and Kate Florek show off the puppets they created for the Science Theater Outreach Program, a student organization at Purdue. The puppets are featured in science-centered plays the organization performs for elementary school children. ​Full-size image (628 KB)

Find out more

"Production is a long process and it takes about 10 weeks to go from a topic to the end product," said Cora Carter, STOP vice president and a junior animal sciences and international agronomy major from Salem, Ind.

The students spend those 10 weeks transforming an idea into a working play. They make costumes and props, construct sets, create the script and memorize their lines.

"We have to do a lot of research when we are creating a play, because we don't know everything and we want to make sure what we are teaching is factual and, at the same time, entertaining for the kids," said Carter.

But there's more than just hard work.

"By the end of the process, we've all bonded with each other, because we all took part in bringing the play to life, and then we experience the rush of performing in front of these kids who love to interact," Carter said. "The whole experience is one roller coaster ride for us, but it's all worth it."

The goal of STOP is to get grade schoolers excited about learning science. The Purdue students present scientific topics in fun, creative ways.

"I think that every kid is overwhelmed and fascinated by science at the same time," said Valle. "And many elementary teachers aren't good at pushing science and don't feel that they have the support to do science lessons, so we are stepping in to get kids excited."

The shows aren't just a distraction for the kids or the performers. STOP members teach.

"We are trying to create lesson plans so that what we perform can be used as a jumping-off point for new material," said Valle.

A passion for education is just one reason why many students join STOP. Others are interested in sharing science with the world, while some members just love to perform. Because of the variety of opportunities STOP offers, Turpin said the program cuts across disciplines and colleges.

"One of the reasons I joined STOP was because I think it's really important to make science a fun, accessible subject for students and to promote the message of science literacy," said Valle. "The other reason I joined is because I have a theater background and a passion for performing to go along with my interest in science."

The organization's members are taking their dedication further than Turpin imagined. STOP will travel to Indonesia to gather materials for a new play and to perform for schools there.

"Going to Indonesia will be an amazing experience, but we have other goals that we are working on all the time," said Valle. "We want to have six or seven short plays covering a variety of subjects and accompanying lesson plans so that teachers could use the plays as a jumping-off point for new material."

The plays are more than just an educational experience, said Turpin. They keep Purdue fresh in the minds of children who are preparing to explore college options. They also present children with the options that are available to them.

"Some of the children we perform for are about to enter high school and are beginning to think about where they will go to college," Turpin said. "Our shows are created, planned and performed by Purdue students and the kids watching these shows get an idea of what college could be like for them."

Valle said that being a member of STOP is one the best college experiences she has had.

"STOP has combined my love for science and theater and allowed me to meet so many new friends," said Valle. "I get to do something that I love and, at the same time, educate kids and hopefully inspire them to learn, which is really important for keeping the passion for science alive and growing."