UPTOWN — As a third-year grad student in chemistry, Matt O'Brien is a serious scientist.
But at the Science Club, a unique 5-year-old collaboration in which Northwestern University students help Chicago kids find the fun in science, he is known by the children simply as "Eyebrows."
"They really ... like my eyebrows," O'Brien said in an Uptown lab, where there's also a picture circulating of him with a penciled-on mustache.
With science fair season kicking off at CPS in December, these are busy times for the middle school students at the Pedersen-McCormick Boys & Girls Club in Uptown, where kids receive hands-on science lab lessons from graduate students and staff from Northwestern.
O'Brien's charge, Lily Le, an 11-year-old Uptown resident, learned how a battery works a few weeks ago. Le grasped the concept every step of the way — from what make up components to how elements and molecules interact — “faster than” some of the college freshman he’s encountered, O'Brien said.
An upbeat Le was sporting a wolf head hat last week at the boys and girls club at 4835 N. Sheridan Road, brainstorming her experiment. The student at John T. McCutcheon Elementary School aims to compare how well various metals conduct electricity.
"Every week they just completely blow us away with their ability to grasp very, very difficult concepts, and make you completely rethink some of the basic foundations of the science that you think you know," said O'Brien.
The club boasts a student-mentor ratio of 2-to-1 and was designed by the university's office of Science in Society, which focuses on community engagement. Thirty mentors work with 60 students throughout the academic year.
The brains behind it is Michael Kennedy, director of Northwestern's Science in Society office. Boys and Girls Club President Jim Clark credits Kennedy's "passion for doing more advocacy, more more outreach with young people" as the seed that sprouted Science Club.
Before Science Club, Kennedy occasionally conducted one-day activities with kids that included students conducting an experiment and hearing a lecture. But Kennedy said he realized "that while we could certainly spark kids imagination and interest in science during fields trips," sustaining that flame "was going to take more work."
He designed the program and turned to the Boys & Girls Club because it had ties to Chicago communities and a holistic approach to youth development.
Science Club kids show "an average 40 percent increase in their science fair scores," Kennedy said, touting boosts to critical thinking and making evidence-based decisions.
The program was honored earlier in October with an Afterschool STEM Impact Award. The award highlights the power of science, technology, engineering and math programs.
Despite the accolade — and the $10,000 check that accompanied it — Science Club's existence past the 2013-2014 school year remains in doubt.
Kennedy said that when Science Club's grant expires in May 2014, "we won't be able to reapply to the National Institutes of Health for help."
Fortunately, Kennedy said he can find funds to continue Science Club until the 2014-2015 school year, but he hopes that local philanthropists and foundations will pitch in to continue the successful program in Uptown after that.
Fall sessions at Science Club are dedicated to honing students' experiments for school science fairs. Fairs start in mid-December and are the first step toward qualifying for the citywide fair at the Museum of Science and Industry in March.
Leah Shoer, a second year chemistry grad student, has been mentoring for two years. She said it can be hard sometimes to keep young kids on task but the continuity of being with the same group for more than a year makes it easier.
Science Club tries to keep student-mentor groups together for as long as possible, according to Rebecca Daugherty, assistant director of Science in Society at Northwestern.
"It gives [mentors] the opportunity to build a relationship, to build some trust and respect, and that allows [children] to dive even deeper into the scientific explorations they are doing," she said.
Uptown resident Jalen Hammond, 13, said he never thought he would learn how to make a prosthetic arm when one of his teachers at Joseph Brennemann Elementary School told him about Science Club a year and a half ago.
Not only did he learn how to make a prosthetic arm, but he made it out of common household materials.
For his science project, he is trying to generate energy with a bike and power a light bulb.
For his mentor, Kate Pothoven, a fourth year life sciences grad student, "this is the best part of my week."