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Grad students introduce kids to ah-ha! moments of science

Sacramento sixth-graders Chelsea Estrada, left, and Tom Cao learn about renewable energy from UC Davis graduate student Sherry Blunk. Sylvia Wright, UC Davis/Courtesy photo

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March 1, 2011 | Leave Comment

On a recent day in a busy sixth-grade classroom in Sacramento, the students are learning how to build a battery from a grapefruit. The students don safety glasses, then poke zinc nails through the fruit’s thick rind and wire the nails to a voltage meter.

The Foothill Oaks Elementary School students are, indeed, learning the basics of electron transfer. But that’s not all. They’re also discovering that a scientist can be young and a woman; can wear a blue T-shirt with the word “SCIENCE!” spelled out in letters made of a DNA helix, dinosaur footprint and rocket; and can explain the invisible forces of physics and chemistry with stuff from their refrigerators.

Meanwhile, the scientist — Sherry Blunk, a UC Davis doctoral student in biological systems engineering who plans a career in renewable energy — is getting experience explaining complex subjects to non-scientists using practical examples and plain English. And the students’ teacher, Courtney Harbman, is getting a state-of-the-science update on renewable-energy research and technology that she can incorporate into future lessons.

Like the energy that loops through the grapefruit battery, benefits loop through all the people in this classroom, thanks to a UCD program funded by the National Science Foundation. This year, 13 graduate students like Blunk are partnering with 15 teachers like Harbman to help 825 public-school students in Sacramento and Sonoma County.

Susan Williams, a professor of evolution and ecology at UCD’s Bodega Marine Laboratory, is the lead faculty member for the fellowships in the Sonoma schools. Jean VanderGheynst, a professor in biological and agricultural engineering, is lead in the Sacramento schools.

Williams is an expert on coastal marine ecosystems as well as a frequent adviser on marine-science policy to federal science officials. She says programs like the National Science Foundation fellowships are essential to American economic health and social well-being.

‘We are lagging’

“After the 1960s generation of children who were inspired by the race to the moon to pursue ‘STEM’ careers — those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the U.S. has become complacent about funding science education,” she said. “The result is a dearth of scientists. Today we are lagging in science and technology innovation compared to China, Japan, Russia, India and Brazil, where children spend more time in school and have better STEM educations.”

So, in hopes of creating more “Sputnik moments,” the National Science Foundation created the fellowship program. Its official name is “Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education,” usually shortened to “GK-12.” (The term “K-12” refers to education in kindergarten through 12th grade.)

The NSF says the program’s premise is that “through interactions with teachers and students in K-12 schools, graduate fellows can improve communication and teaching skills while enriching STEM content and instruction for their K-12 partners.”

Since 1999, the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 program has established 299 programs at U.S. universities, which have supported 10,401 fellows, 11,801 teachers and 634,098 K-12 students in 6,278 schools, said Sonia Ortega, an NSF program director in the Division of Graduate Education.

At UCD, the first GK-12 program was the Collaborative Classroom-Based Inquiry Project, which, from 2004 to 2007, helped K-12 teachers analyze how their students mastered complex science concepts.

In 2009, Williams launched the second UCD program, called Coastal, Atmospheric and Marine Environmental Observing Studies, or CAMEOS. Its goal is to improve “ocean literacy,” the understanding of ocean processes and their effects on human life, by pairing eight marine science graduate students at Bodega Marine Laboratory yearly with 10 high-school teachers at 10 Sonoma County schools.

“CAMEOS gives our UC Davis graduate students better communications skills that they will use later in the public arena, while boosting the number of children entering the science-career pipeline,” Williams said.

“We reach 600 students a year who have almost no science experience otherwise. The children see young scientists at work, and it erases this image they have of scientists as being men in white lab coats. It makes science come alive as an endeavor and an occupation.”

Connections

Rachel Fontana, a UCD student working on her doctorate in physical oceanography, is a second-year CAMEOS fellow. She has two teacher partners — Teri O’Donnell, who teaches a ninth/10th-grade honors biology class at Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, and Bob Pawlan, who teaches an 11th/12th-grade marine science class at Petaluma High School.

In the second half of her year in O’Donnell’s class, Fontana is using black turban snails, sea urchins and sea stars to help the high-schoolers learn about the stresses of life in the intertidal zone, and about the scientific process. The students are designing experiments they’ll conduct.

One group, for example, plans to study the effects of waves on sea urchins by putting the urchins in buckets and stirring the water, then recording changes in the urchins’ tube-foot attachments to the bucket, and in how much their spines move.

Fontana says a key lesson of her fellowship has been time management — “really getting to understand when to write lesson plans and how to fit research in around that.”

She says she has also learned from O’Donnell’s “very laid-back teaching style, which works really well in the high-school classroom. She’s engaging. She gets her point across in different styles. That’s helpful to see, and it has helped me to be able to discuss my research at a level better for a broader audience. Now I can take something and say it in four different ways to get my point across.”

Last summer, VanderGheynst launched the third GK-12 programs, called Renewable Energy Systems Opportunity for Unified Research Collaboration and Education, or RESOURCE. VanderGheynst’s research focuses on the production and conversion of plant biomass to biofuels.

She also is associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering and works with the UCDs Energy Institute to create undergraduate and graduate education opportunities in energy.

Some of the first RESOURCE teachers were already active in the Math, Engineering and Science Achievement, or MESA, partnership between UCD and Sacramento State University. MESA programs across the country help disadvantaged youth enter STEM careers.

National advocate

UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi is a national advocate for K-12 STEM education. In 2009, as chair of a committee on K-12 education for the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council, she told a congressional subcommittee, “The teaching of STEM subjects in U.S. schools must be improved” if the U.S. is to be competitive in the global economy and build a workforce with the knowledge and skills to address technical and technological issues.

The GK-12 programs are two of “literally hundreds” of STEM activities UCD supports in K-12 classrooms all over California, said Harold G. Levine, dean of the School of Education.

“UC Davis has the assets and vision to create a powerful system for transforming STEM education on both a regional and national level. Almost nothing could be more important to ensuring the next generation of students is capable of leading the world in innovation.”

VanderGheynst said that is what the GK-12 programs are all about. “We urgently need scientists and engineers who can solve the natural resource problems created by our energy demands with renewable-energy solutions.”

The RESOURCE collaborations will help us meet that need, she said, by encouraging sixth-graders to enter STEM fields; helping their teachers develop and deliver lessons on renewable energy; and training graduate students — our future leaders in engineering and science — to communicate their knowledge and discoveries to a non-technical audience, so that the general public recognizes the importance of research and STEM education.

‘Excited for science’

In Courtney Harbman’s classroom, as the children and Sherry Blunk clean up the grapefruit skins and copper wires, Harbman says she sees big changes in her students.

“When Sherry talks about renewable energy in everyday terms, the children get very excited for science. And they’re getting excited again for math. And they’re going home and talking to their parents about it, saying, ‘We need to be watching how much water we’re using and how much electricity we’re using.’

“Because of Sherry, they’re saying, ‘You know what? Science isn’t dry, it isn’t boring. It’s very exciting.’ ”

— UC Davis News Service

Fellowship facts

* Number of Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education: CAMEOS (Coastal, Atmospheric and Marine Environmental Observing Studies) 8, RESOURCE (Renewable Energy Systems Opportunity for Unified Research Collaboration and Education) 5

* Number of teacher partners: CAMEOS 10, RESOURCE 5

* Number of students in fellowship classes: CAMEOS 600, RESOURCE 225

* Hours a fellow spends weekly preparing and teaching classroom lessons and working with their teacher partners: at least 20

* Fellow’s yearly stipend and other education allowances: $40,500

* K-12 teacher’s yearly stipend: $5,000

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