At Cuney Homes in the city’s Third Ward, children are excited to see University of Houston College of Education students who are there to teach.

“What’s in outer space?” asks one future educator, her young charges surrounding her. “The solar system is in outer space. Who can name a planet?” Eager hands wave with answers.

The science lessons represent a partnership between the college, Cuney Homes and the YMCA that gathers the children from the housing complex for after-school lessons that reinforce literacy, math and science. While the children benefit from extra learning, the UH students benefit from real-world teaching.

The after-school lessons experienced during this day ranged from scavenger hunts — led by College of Education students — to working on word puzzles and helping in the herb garden to transfer plants to larger pots.

“It is exciting for the college to be involved in this project, because it gives our students valuable, real-world experiences while allowing us to positively contribute to our neighborhood,” said Jonathan Schwartz, associate dean for graduate studies at the college. “Our student-teachers are learning to work with a wide variety of children as far as developmental level, learning style and educational preparation. But most importantly, our students have the opportunity to be part of a community at Cuney Homes, interacting with family and residents in service of the children.”

The student teachers rotate through the after-school program, providing targeted tutoring in addition to the learning centers. The teaching also is extended to the counselors at Cuney Homes who learn how to develop their own lesson plans to assist the children.

“The UH students have been incorporating lessons and concepts that our children have learned in school, in hopes of reinforcing them and helping the kids retain the information,” said Karen Beltran, YMCA outreach site director at Cuney Homes. “They also teach basic and fundamental things our children struggle with.”

The effort started in the summer of 2015 with a small group of children, but word spread quickly and the group grew to include up to 50 at the Third Ward Cuney Homes. Today, 300 student teachers rotate through the project. It may feel like playtime, sometimes, but the interaction is needed and beneficial. The college has plans to extend this project to work with teachers in area Third Ward schools to increase educational outcomes.

“Our children have many needs, especially academically, and people in the community have taken notice of that,” Beltran said.

Meanwhile, back in our science lesson, students talk about astronauts, the skills it takes to stay on the International Space Station and the places the astronauts come from.

“Yes, some of the astronauts are from Texas,” the future teacher says. “Just like you.”

“Our goal is to positively impact our community,” said Schwartz. “This is our community, and these are our neighbors.”