A classroom of 4th and 5th graders chatter excitedly, hunched over long tables to hunt for tiny resistors in clear electronics kits. They’re building a simple circuit to attach to the back of a cardboard box that is decorated with multiple-choice questions. The objective? When touched by a clip, the thumbtack next to the correct answers causes a bright green LED to light up; the tacks next to the incorrect choices won’t.
What sounds like a week’s work for most elementary school classrooms is, in fact, half a day inside Amy Fitzgerald’s classroom at MIT’s Edgerton Center. Before lunchtime, Fitzgerald has already wrangled a feisty group of young students to sit at their desks, taught a subject to their full understanding, and sent them home with a cool science project they made themselves. The students’ bright eyes shine with new curiosity. Then, it’s on to the next lesson.
Fitzgerald, who has been teaching K-12 outreach classes with the Edgerton Center for 13 years, is fully booked every year for these classes. For these classes, “fully booked” is quite unrelenting. It means teaching a lesson every day during the busier school months: October, November, and into spring.
Fitzgerald’s team consists of herself and Amy Belanger, another Edgerton Center-affiliate. She also relies on a few student helpers and sometimes community volunteers from Vecna, a healthcare tech company in Cambridge. But often, it’s up to Fitzgerald and two or three other adults in the room to run an entire class of 20 young students.
“October is already crazy,” Fitzgerald comments while she organizes wires from the circuits lesson. “I’m running a class every day, but I still get calls all the time from teachers.”
It’s not hard to see why Fitzgerald’s half-day classes are so popular. Spend just 10 minutes in a session and it’s clear to anyone that she has a talent for teaching. Fitzgerald knows how to talk and act to get across complicated subjects to 10-year-olds. In front of a large projection of a cell in the process of mitosis, she stretches her arms up in animation to resemble spindle fibers.
“They’re stre— stretching toward the centromeres in the middle. Centromeres, not the centrioles, remember, that are by the side,” Fitzgerald emphasizes as she demonstrates. The kids are rapt.
No matter what the subject, Fitzgerald has the charm and commanding passion that defines a great teacher. She always knew she wanted to go into teaching, and before being asked to join the Edgerton Center for this program, had spearheaded hands-on early learning in the Cambridge area. The passion for providing interactive learning to students permeates the Edgerton Center, and Fitzgerald has felt right at home since joining the center in this role.
The K-12 program has had impact beyond just her classroom. Clio Macrakis ’18 is a student employee who helps Fitzgerald run these classes. However, years ago in this very room, she herself was a young girl attending a LEGO cars session being taught by Fitzgerald.
“I like being back here in Amy’s classroom,” says Macrakis while helping kids with their yarn cell structures, “and now I get to give back. Coming to her class back in 5th grade was the first time I was at MIT.”
Macrakis’ story is heartwarming and hopeful. Fitzgerald, Belanger, and the Edgerton team hope that these K-12 programs can be something more than a fun field trip for young students. They want kids to walk down the famed halls of MIT and realize that MIT isn’t so intimidating after all. They hope that students, like Macrakis, become curious about science and engineering — so enamored that they end up coming back as college students. In teaching so many classes through the year, Fitzgerald and the Edgerton Center are making an impact on young minds for years and years to come.