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Teaching Students to Think

ISEP's project leader is UB chemistry professor Dr. Joseph Gardella. (photo by Douglas Levere)

Innovative collaboration brings UB graduate students and new approaches to Buffalo Public Schools

The American education system, on the whole, doesn’t work very well. We seem to have a great university system. Students from around the world come to study in American colleges and universities. But somehow, whatever it is the colleges and universities are doing right—not to imply that they’re doing it all right—it isn’t getting passed down to the primary and secondary schools.

Primary and secondary school teachers are shackled and manacled by testing mandates to the point that they haven’t sufficient time to teach. But the tests are not just tests of the students, but primarily and ultimately tests of the teachers, who get the blame if their students fail. So teachers wind up teaching to the tests. Which sounds pretty tedious and uninspiring. While the students are pretty clearly communicating—by their high absenteeism numbers and high dropout rates—that school is in fact pretty tedious and uninspiring. The teachers blame society. The home environment. If a kid’s parents don’t care, if they aren’t making sure their kid is getting to school, going to class, if parents aren’t interested in what the kid is doing in school, how he’s doing, if parents aren’t reading to their kids from a young age but just parking them in front of the television as babysitter, the teachers can’t make it happen on their own.

A program to better link what’s going on at the university level with what’s going on in Buffalo elementary and high schools is trying to change all this. The program involves University at Buffalo graduate and undergraduate students working in the schools alongside the regular teachers, summer programs for the 50 or so regular teachers involved—either work on a science project of the teacher’s choosing, maybe in a UB laboratory, sometimes with a UB student partner, or taking a class at Buffalo State—and regular extracurricular sessions for all participants that so far have focused on professional development—innovative teaching methods and effective classroom procedures—but are scheduled to expand scope to involve students and parents. An ultimate goal of the program—along with all the other educational level connections—is getting parents involved. The program also includes funding for classroom equipment and resources such as field trips to museums and other scientific facilities.

The program is called the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP). It is supported by a $9.8 million National Science Foundation grant and includes partner institutions—UB, Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo State College, Buffalo Museum of Science, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Hauptman-Woodward Institute, Praxair, the Western New York Service Learning Coalition, and the Buffalo Public Schools District Parent Coordinating Council. The project is currently in operation in five K-8 schools, six high schools, and the new Seneca Math, Science, and Technology (MST) school, comprising grades 6-12. The prime mover behind ISEP and project leader is UB chemistry professor Dr. Joe Gardella. The project manager is Karen King, a UB doctoral candidate in education.

Charles Harding, an earth science teacher at Seneca MST, turned over a recent Tuesday class to Jonathan Malzone, a UB graduate student in geology and Harding’s ISEP research and teaching partner. Jonathan had prepared the lesson for the day, an experiment to determine the heat transfer rate from a candle flame through wires of various composition, copper and aluminum. While demonstrating the procedure, he mentioned a difficulty he had encountered in purchasing the materials for the experiment, candles and the various composition wires and wax. He said that when he attempted to buy several different kinds of wire at Home Depot, he was stopped and questioned for 40 minutes or so. He pointed out that wires of different metals would be used in making bombs. This seemed to get the students’ attention.

The student experiments went pretty well. The data was a little erratic—sometimes the heat transfer in shorter copper wires took longer than in longer copper wires, possibly due to problems getting the ends of the wires more or less in the center of the candle flame—but was duly recorded and data graphs were made. Data analysis would have to wait for another day.

Asked what was different about his teaching procedure and classes as a result of the ISEP program, Harding said that previously the school science teachers had one common planning period each day, when they would talk about coordinating their efforts.

Due to differences in personality, pace, emphasis, he said, “it would be a lot of talk and no action. Whereas, working with Jonathan, if we have an idea, if we decide we want to do something, we integrate it right away into the classroom.”

Jonathan pointed out that one of the big problems trying to run a good class is keeping students of different intelligence and/or enthusiasm levels interested and involved. “Some students will just motor through the material, and then become bored and then become a disciplinary problem. Of course those are precisely the students you’d like to see get interested and keep interested in the challenging world of science, but you lose them. But by my being here, and being a grad student, my connection with the university, when some of these students fly through the unit in no time, we can immediately provide them with extension work that will keep them busy and interested and working up to their potential.” For example, on the heat transfer lesson, “if they complete the core unit, we give them a mystery metal that by further experiments and using charts, they have to figure out what it is.”

For an ISEP summer project, Charles and Jonathan worked together developing earth science experiments the students could do in the school’s beautiful new atrium outdoor natural area—the “learning garden,” they call it—complete with a running stream, a rock garden, and copious and various vegetation. So far they said they’ve only attempted tried one of the experiments—about mapping, the concept of scale—and with only middling results. Some other experiments they’re planning involve stream flow and rock identification. “Part of the problem with the mapping experiment was just getting these kids—inner city kids—out into the natural world,” Charles said. “It was kind of a strange experience for them. Some of them haven’t had a lot of that kind of opportunity.”

Jonathan talked about once when he taught a unit on rocks, he decided to get back to basics. “I asked them, ‘What is a rock?’ The answers I got were: ‘asphalt’ and ‘concrete.’ I had to tell them that neither concrete nor asphalt is a rock. But that’s the world they know.”

Down the hall at Seneca MST, Michelle Zimmerman, who teaches middle school physical science and high school biology, had time to chat while one of her classes was in another area doing a test. An “acuity test,” she said. Whatever that is.

Asked what she does differently as a result of involvement in the ISEP program, she talked about doing “inquiry-based science” that tends toward greater self-direction on the part of students, less direction from and dependence on the teacher or the textbook. She teaches, where possible, not from a traditional fat textbook of what look to be pretty cut-and-dried units, but a much thinner book that proceeds by setting up a problem and outlining basic procedures for exploring the problem by collecting data, and basic strategies for analyzing the data.

For example, a problem regarding choosing a cleaning solution for use in a hospital setting. The students have to evaluate a number of possible choices based on various criteria and data they have to seek out and assess, including standard material safety data sheets (MSDSs). This is in the seventh grade. “They have to pick the best product, given all the variables,” Michelle said. “There are pros and cons for each one. They’re doing real decision-making, real science. I call them my junior scientists, because that’s what they are.”

As for her high school students, she said, “About this time [in the school year], I see them becoming more and more independent. Not leaning on me.”

At Lorraine Academy, a middle school in South Buffalo, regular teacher Sharon Pikul has Sarina D’Orazio, a UB graduate student in chemistry, and Nadine James, a post-doctoral fellow in neural oncology, helping out in her fifth grade class. For her ISEP summer project last year, Sharon worked with protein crystallization researchers Dr. Ed Snell and Joe Luft at the Hauptman-Woodward Institute, and this year her students are making crystals, which wasn’t previously part of the fifth-grade curriculum. She said they have also started up a science club at the school. In science club, the kids devise and pursue projects based on their personal interests, from making paper airplanes to model landscapes to molecular models.

Sharon said what she learned particularly through her Hauptman-Woodward experience, and tries to pass on to her pupils, “is about asking questions, more about questions than answers. And getting kids to pay attention to details, and document more. And understand that if they make a mistake, where does that lead? A new discovery, maybe. It forces teachers out of their comfort zones. It’s asking teachers to ask kids to think. As a teacher, you aren’t so much a giver of information as a facilitator for acquiring information. I don’t have all the answers. I ask the kids where they think they should go to find the answers.”

She said she teaches science in all her subjects. As a fifth-grade teacher, you teach the whole curriculum: science, mathematics, social studies, English. “When I teach social studies, about social communities, I tie that in with ecosystems. In our reading for English, we look for interconnections with science.” She said one of the English reading choices is a Roger Tory Peterson field guide. “I believe science is a vehicle for everything, science and the scientific method.” And the scientific method she talked about seemed a more authentic scientific method—more open-ended, more about questions than answers—than the linear, finite scientific method that used to be outlined, at any rate, in the fat textbooks.

At a professional development session held at the Buffalo Science Museum, Dr. Vanashri Nargund-Joshi, a research associate in the UB Graduate School of Education, and Bhawna Chowdhary, a student in the Graduate School of Education, told an audience of a dozen or so teachers in the ISEP program about an instructional technique called Project-Based Science. Experimental stations with materials were set up around the room, and the teachers were encouraged to perform some simple experiments with a view to walking through some of the PBS elements. One of the stations featured a bottle of milk and a bottle of vinegar. The idea was to mix these materials, but one of the PBS elements was first to predict what would happen in doing so, so as later to compare the prediction with what actually happened. Rich Nagler and Karl Wagner, science teachers at Riverside, give the experiment a try. Rich predicts the milk will curdle. “When you mix fat and acid—the fat in the milk, and vinegar is an acid—the fat will curdle.” It curdles, but not much. Then they notice, it’s 1% milk, not much fat there to curdle. A better experiment, they decide, would be with whole milk. Better still, several fat content types: skim, 1%, 2%, and whole.

Pat McQuaid, a teacher at East High School, and Kathleen Marren, a teacher at South Park, sat down at the milk and vinegar station. Considering the prediction step, they talked about how anxious students often were—especially the smartest ones—to get the “right” answer. Sometimes even asking the teacher, before they’d even done the experiment, what’s the answer. “We’ve got to wean them from that,” Kathleen said. “Wean them off the idea that there’s an answer, give me the answer.” Pat talked about an experiment he ran in one of his classes about the density of sweat glands in different parts of the body. “On the back of the hand, and higher up on the arm, it’s not the same. And the question came up, why less in some places, more in another? And I didn’t know. And I felt good about that. We talked about strategies for how to find out.”

Museum staff people took the opportunity of having the teachers at their facility to demonstrate and talk up some of the educational assistance the museum can provide to classes or small groups either at the museum or in the school classroom. Doug Borzynski touted class visits to the museum. He said so many kids come to the museum as toddlers, when their parents bring them, “but then we don’t see them again until they’re back as young adults, with their own toddlers. During those middle years, we lose them.” Echoing the concern Jonathan had expressed in the same words only slightly different context. Actually, several other ISEP program teachers expressed the same anxiety in the same or virtually the same words. The possibility of losing so much intelligence, so much talent, so much potential. For “the wonderful world of science,” as one of the teachers put it. Or whatever wonderful world, really (science is a vehicle, as Sharon put it). It’s what’s at stake.

About 60 students from Bennett High School and their ISEP program teachers did a morning field trip to the Hauptman-Woodward Institute where they heard about the institute and a summer and/or after school program in which students work on the great genome tracking project the institute is fundamentally occupied with. The presentation by Dr. Bill Duax, who runs the student program, was equal parts informational about the program and out-and-out recruitment for it. “I need bright young people like you to go into this program,” he said. “People my age think they know all the answers. I need you because you may not think that way.” He talked about the longish application form prospective participants need to fill out to apply, but said he had always accepted anyone who had completed the form into the program. Some high school students currently in the Hauptman-Woodward program—Connor Huck, Jordan Tick, and Jamerdon Dean—also presented their work. Remarkably sophisticated scientific work, clearly, for workers at any level. But for high school students, amazing. By the end of the morning, several of the Bennett students—Keon Jones, Jordan McAlister, and Jaquora Renfro, among possible others—said they intended to apply for the program. Jaquora’s mother, Kisha Renfro, was also along on the field trip, which delighted Karen King, who was present as well and is anxious to see parent involvement—the final brick in the arch, as it were—in the ISEP program, ISEP activities.

Bennett teachers in the ISEP program who were along on the field trip included Tanya Johnson, Megan Kinmartin, and Angel Moses.

The educational system isn’t working, but has to be made to work. Nothing is more important. To make it work, one necessity is to get everybody involved communicating and participating, in all areas, at all levels, universities and schools, parents and teachers and students. That’s one ISEP program principal objective. But teachers also have to inspire, be inspirational. Many are, maybe most. But on testimony from anyone who has ever gone to school, many are not. To be inspirational, teachers have to know their subject area in breadth and depth. They have to love it. But with a bachelor’s degree, after a small handful of upper-level college courses in their major, they may not know it well enough to call the relationship love. Serious romantic attraction, maybe. Flirtation, crush, maybe. But not true love. Not First Corinthians 13: 4-8. They need breadth and depth, exposure to breadth and depth. Such as may occur in association with and doing the equivalent work of graduate students and other professionals in the subject matter. The ISEP other principal objective is to provide that opportunity. For love.

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