Beyond the block: UB students create video pen pal program for Buffalo middle schoolers


Like most kids their age, the eighth grade students at Buffalo School 31 would rather talk about new movies or share gossip with friends than spend extra time learning about science.

Sushmita Gelda, a senior English major, and Antara Majumdar, a senior biomedical sciences major, weren’t sure how to engage the students they mentored. They joined the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP) program hoping to improve science education in Buffalo public schools and get students excited.

Instead, they were often met with blank stares and bored sighs.

Something wasn’t working, but they didn’t know what was missing until the day Majumdar brought a heap of letters back from her winter break trip to Calcutta, India. While tutoring at Calcutta Rescue, Majumdar asked the Indian students to write letters to bring back for her Americans students at School 31.

That’s when everything changed.

The usual bored faces turned puzzled and intrigued as they burst with questions.

“What is ‘cricket’?” “Is this a girl or a boy writing to me?” “Why do kids in India write the date differently?”

“I remember that day perfectly,” Gelda said. “It felt like a totally different experience than the things we had been doing.”

Gelda and Majumdar realized that while the students focused heavily on core subjects like math, science, reading and writing, there wasn’t a global emphasis linking it all together. Beyond the Block became the answer to that problem. They worked in partnership with student mentors in Calcutta to share videos between the students in Buffalo and their pen pals halfway across the world.

Gelda and Majumdar now focus on incorporating global issues into their curriculum with the students, with an emphasis on social issues and scientific ways to learn about them.

So far, the students have exchanged over 40 videos, focusing on global issues like air pollution, gender equality and stress.

“One thing that definitely surprised us making the videos is that it’s not only about exchanging information, but exchanging communication styles, ways of presenting, ways of creatively expressing yourself,” Gelda said. “The students definitely learn a lot on the communication level.”

The students from India will usually offer constructive criticism for the Buffalo students after watching their videos, Majumdar explained. They suggest the Buffalo students speak louder or more confidently. In exchange, the Indian students will practice English very confidently, which in turn inspires the Buffalo students.

“They’ll say, ‘Wow, that girl from India is an amazing speaker. I want to be like that,’” Majumdar said.

The program’s flexibility allows them to focus on topics important to the students. This semester, their focus is on mental health and diversity. They chose these topics after students voiced a recurring problem they noticed: kids in their school would have trouble paying attention and be put in detention. The students voiced a frustration and said this didn’t seem to help the students in the long-term.

“They talk about this a lot with us passionately, so we took that into consideration and we would say, OK, on a neurological level, what is happening when we are distracted,” Gelda said. “It’s a chance for students to tie social issues to scientific concepts.”

The mentors started by teaching the students about the scientific method and how to conduct an experiment. The students then designed an experiment to see how meditation would affect student behavior in their school.

Although neither student mentor plans to go into education, the two will continue their Beyond the Block program for years to come and hope to expand into more Buffalo schools.

“It’s funny because as the kids are learning, I’m also learning how to be more responsible, to work as a team,” Majumdar said. “Everyone brings in something new and I have to learn about that and really integrate it into the curriculum.”

The students, too, have learned about more than just artificial intelligence and stress management.

“In India, people perceive mental health issues differently. They don’t maybe talk about it in the same way we do as Americans. That’s kind of what stuck out to me from this program,” Majumdar said. “The kids are really excited to be global players, even if they’re also careful to sometimes not go outside their traditional ways of discussing things.”

Gelda and Majumdar say this is why a global program is so important for the students.

“There are several interviews I’ve had where people asked me, ‘What do you think about the U.S. election in the context of the world?’ And it surprises me when someone from another country asks me that it kind of opens my eyes that you have to be open minded, even if it’s the same issue happening in different countries, people perceive things differently,” Majumdar said.

Sarah Crowley is the senior features editor and can be reached at