BOULDER, Colo. (KDVR) — Rachel Tilton is your typical 7th grader at the moment, forced to do most of her learning on a laptop because of COVID-19.

The 12-year old attends Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colorado, where the classrooms are empty and the classroom supplies inaccessible.

“I think it’s going to be hard. In person, it’s just way easier to learn,” said Tilton, referring to an entire school year that could be taught online.

No one agrees more than Tilton’s science teacher Erin Mayer.

“We are a hundred percent virtual, so they don’t have access to the tools that they would normally have,” Mayer said.

Taking the classroom to the students

The 20-year teaching veteran is getting some help, though, thanks to a $5,000 national grant that allows her to purchase science kits for her students that the middle-schoolers can use at home.

“Kits available where they could do lots of different water testing; there’s kits available for cameras that they could set up in their backyard if they’re really interested in wildlife and wildlife migration patterns,” said Mayer, giving a few examples of the different options students can choose from.

The kits are provided by the Society for Science and the Public, a non-profit which aims to promote science for students nationwide. This year it awarded nearly $350,000 to 66 teachers across the country who mentor underserved students in Science and Engineering research at home.

At Casey Middle School, minorities make up 50% of the student body and nearly 50% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

All students in Mayer’s 6th and 7th grade applied science courses will have the option to use the kits for a research or engineering project — about 100 students total. She’s having each write a “mini-grant” to request the kits or supplies they’ll need for their projects. Then, they’ll enter their projects into an area science fair next year.

Letting students’ interests drive learning

Tilton lives near Boulder Creek and last year she won a state science award for an engineer design plan to collect and study trash in the creek.

“We were trying to see how much trash was in there and how maybe that would be slowly but gradually affecting how much trash goes into the ocean,” Tilton said.

Rachel Tilton studies science at home (KDVR Photo)
Rachel Tilton studies science at home (KDVR Photo)

She hopes to expand on last year’s project thanks to the science kit that will offer her new tools to study water quality.

“It’ll be easier to learn more and be more interactive and understand more deeply, like doing it yourself rather than watching someone build a type of thing,” she said.

“The great thing about this is what they want to do is what’s going to drive it, and so they’re the drivers of their project. They’re the drivers of their learning, and I’m just there to support them,” Mayer said.

Mayer said it’s important to reach every student by providing science kits that engage the curiosity of each kid regardless of their background.

If Boulder Creek can be part of Rachel’s classroom, her science kit could be the paddle that helps her navigate through a pandemic.

“I think it’s really important,” Tilton said, “because for most people online learning isn’t great.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.