A hands-on activity kit created by two Middleton High School graduates is helping youngsters understand the science associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sophia De Oliveira, a 2020 Middleton High School graduate and founder of Project Empower, which makes and distributes the free Lung Model Kits, said she researched what was available for parents to teach their children about the coronavirus. Much of what she found were questions parents could ask as a way to talk to their children about it.
De Oliveira, a freshman at Yale University, figured she could do better by making a hands-on kit to teach children about lungs and their function.
“I just thought that COVID is such a sensitive subject ... they would actually be in control of their learning,” she said.
The kit comes with a stethoscope so children can listen to what normal lungs and unhealthy lungs sound like. As part of the activity, students create bubbles, which represent inflammation and make a crackle sound when listening with a stethoscope. The children also learn about the trachea and cartilage.
More than 200 kits have been ordered by parents and teachers who learned about them on the organization’s website — projectempower-stem.com — or Instagram account. The Middleton-Cross Plains School District also put a link on its Facebook page to the organization’s website.
Julie Henige ordered a kit for her son, Nicolas, a second-grader at Sauk Trail Elementary School in Middleton, and it was hand delivered to their door.
“It just looked really interesting. Nicolas loves science and STEM stuff. So I just thought it would be a nice little activity for us to do during virtual school.” she said. “He really jumped right on it. The doorbell rang and we ran and got the box.”
While she has talked to Nicolas about why he is doing school online and wearing a mask, she thought the kit would be a way to talk about the effect the virus has on the lungs. His favorite part of the kit was the stethoscope and listening to the heartbeats of the family pets. He wants to be a veterinarian.
“I got to learn why you have to wear a mask,” Nicolas said.
Expert help in making the simple kits as realistic as possible came from De Oliveira’s father, Nilto, who is a heart and lung surgeon at UW Hospital. Her brother, Nickolas, who also graduated from Middleton High School and is now a pre-med student in his junior year at the University of Chicago, designed the kit. Her mother, Fernanda, helped with the kit’s design and offered her perspective as a parent. De Oliveira also got advice from others, including child educators and child psychologists.
De Oliveira, who plans to attend law school and then work to make health or education policy more equitable, designed a pamphlet for parents and a child-appropriate book that come with the kit.
The kit is designed for ages 5 to 8. De Oliveira said a kit for older students and one in Spanish are planned.
Project Empower is a nonprofit organization De Oliveira founded during her sophomore year of high school to encourage children of color to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields. De Oliveira said her parents are native Brazilians and she identifies as Latina.
When the organization started, she and other members of Project Empower visited elementary schools to do science activities with students. But when the pandemic closed schools, the organization transitioned to creating about 200 kits by filling boxes with hands-on activities that were distributed to families who came to pick up meals at the schools.
YouTube videos also were created to complement the kits, and a video was later uploaded for the lung kit.
The positive feedback De Oliveira got from parents about the original kits and concerns they expressed about teaching their children about COVID-19 led her to create the lung kit. She made sure to include the stethoscope and goggles in the kits so the youngsters could feel more like doctors who have been portrayed as heroes during the pandemic, she said.
“Many studies have proven that children are more fearful when they are not well informed about the world around them and what is happening,” De Oliveira said. “To counter this and ameliorate the fears faced by kids, we developed this kit as an empowering way to educate children about COVID-19 and equip them with the knowledge of how to keep themselves and each other safe, all while sparking scientific curiosity.”
The free kits are funded by donations and out-of-pocket money. George Kostas, a sophomore at UW-Madison, secured a partnership with the Wisconsin Pre-Medical Society at the university, and the organization will fundraise for Project Empower this year.