Inside of a second grade classroom at Speas Global Elementary School in Winston-Salem, students gather around in a circle on the carpet. 

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, which means they’re about to learn science from a couple of special guests — students from Wake Forest University. 

Today, they’re learning about mass, volume, weight and density. And they’re doing that by tossing an imaginary ball of ice around the room to their classmates, who are pretending to be located on different planets. The children throw their hands up into the air excitedly, eager for the ball to be passed their way. 

“I’m going to send it to Neptune," one student calls out, throwing it to another. 

On Neptune, the ice stays frozen and very dense. But over on Mercury, it heats up so much that it turns into a gas and becomes less dense. When it gets to the moon, one of the Wake Forest students leading the class asks the group about whether the weight of the ball has changed. 

"It’s going to be different, because there’s no gravity for it to weigh down," one second-grader answers, before passing it along again. 

This is what science class looks like when the Wake students are here. That’s because the two students leading each class come from different backgrounds — one is studying education and the other theater. 

Brook Davis, a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Wake Forest, teaches theatre in education, the course that makes all of this possible. She created the class more than 20 years ago.  

“I started to realize that there were a lot of our students, theater students who ended up in classrooms or teaching over the summer that didn't have a lot of practical experience about how you work with students," Davis said. "Then I started to hear from some education colleagues that they were also looking for ways to incorporate the arts or more creative activities in their classrooms.”

So she created a course that merged the two groups, with theater and education students working in pairs to design creative and engaging ways to teach. 

This semester, they’re at Speas Global Elementary School teaching science. But they’ve been all over the district working with different grade levels and subjects. When they’re not teaching the kids, they’re meeting with their professors to go over what worked, what didn’t, and start on lesson plans for the next week. 

Davis says the class gives the college students hands-on teaching experience, but it also helps the elementary schoolers learn the material. 

“There's a lot of research that says that if you can get somebody pretty kinesthetically engaged, if you can get them using their bodies and their creativity, it really does help," Davis said. "It helps internalize.”

Katryna Jacober, the International Baccalaureate Program Coordinator for Speas, says the partnership with Wake Forest has been helping students learn science, but also vocabulary — in both English and Spanish. 

The students learn all of this information in Spanish first, through the school’s language immersion program. She says the English words are quite similar. 

“So they're studying a lot of this with our Wake Forest students in English, and so they're able to make those connections between Spanish and English quite easily," Jacober said. "The teachers have told me that this part has been much easier this year, because they're getting that reinforcement through another avenue.”

Wake Forest student Sarah Cadena approached the class from the theater side.

“It's interesting to see how they change from sitting in their desk to being creative in a sketch, or in a skit with their friends, and really becoming independent and blossoming as learners using their full bodies," Cadena said. 

One of those learners is Brooks Robinette. He’s a second grader at Speas, and has enjoyed his science classes with the Wake Forest students. He says he’s learned about all kinds of things.  

“We've talked about the weight. We've talked about matter. We've talked about like, things like gravity," Robinette said. "We talked about, today, how whenever water freezes, it'll get bigger.” 

He says his classes on Tuesdays have involved games, acting, singing, and even rapping. All of those activities have helped him remember what he’s learning about. 

“It's been really fun, and I hope that other people get to do it too," Robinette said. 

And they will, whether that’s through the next partnership between the university and a local school, or through the future teachers who graduate having learned how to blend theater and education to make learning fun.

Amy Diaz covers education for WFDD in partnership with Report For America. You can follow her on Twitter at @amydiaze.

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