Hooking Students on STEM: Make it Real! (Part 4 of 4)

The University of Texas at Austin is an outstanding research institution with a “CURE” for the high attrition rate among students who, when they enter university, plan to graduate with STEM degrees.  The Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), which provides first year students with genuine research experiences, is an innovative program which has produced a significantly higher rate of graduates with STEM degrees than the more traditional programs of textbook, lecture, and cookbook experiments. A post on the Freshman Research Initiative led off this series.

I became curious about the work the University was doing to engage students in STEM early on, programs at the elementary, middle, or high school level that might encourage young people to consider majoring in a STEM discipline when they get to college.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to interview Greg Clark, Senior Lecturer and Research Scientist at the University, who developed and leads several of the University’s outreach programs to middle and high school students.

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Gwen Stovall's Lab (not present in photos) UT Student scientist: Dorothy Nguyen (released)f Location: Painter 2.14 Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released), Tre’von Martin Smith grey t-shirt (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Gwen Stovall’s Lab (not present in photos)
UT Student scientist: Dorothy Nguyen (released)
Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released)

As you work with University Freshmen in FRI, get nominations from high school teachers and counselors for the program, or arrange mentorships for high school or middle school students, do you notice any common denominators? What experiences guide young people into STEM? What positively influences them to consider a STEM career for themselves? 

“I believe that encouraging young students to embrace their curiosity and creativity in STEM makes them more likely to persist in a STEM career. This is why using inquiry-based teaching instead of content-based teaching is helpful in getting young students to enjoy science. From my limited perspective, the opportunity to meet and talk to scientists at a young age also has a positive effect because it helps young students to dispel stereotypes they have about scientists.”

Please say a little about your role at the University of Texas and your work with middle and high school students?

“I’m a research educator in the FRI. This is a unique role at the University. One of the reasons it’s so effective is that you get principal investigators who want to work with students. These are PhD scientists who are teaching at the University who directly interact with freshman students to give the undergraduates an authentic research experience.

I strongly believe that inquiry-based teaching and learning is very powerful in the STEM disciplines. When I started in the FRI, I chose as my additional component K-12 STEM outreach. So I’ve been doing that in addition to teaching in the FRI for the past ten years or so. I’ve also done work across the grade levels, mostly middle and high school.

I’ve had a long tradition of having high school students doing real novel research in the lab with me. This summer I’m working with nine students on research that is potentially publishable.

There are two middle school programs I’m associated with and helped develop. Shadow a Scientist is one I had the idea for, and it’s been running for six summers now. The program matches two middle school students with a scientist for a two-hour tour of the scientist’s lab and experiments in progress. Middle school is a very creative open age. Shadowing a scientist gives middle school students the opportunity to visit laboratories on a university campus and interact with scientists. The middle school students — who have come from private, public, and home schools — visit one scientist who is selected based on their personal interests. On a typical visit, the students meet with the scientist and are introduced to his or her research. The students ask questions about research, do hands-on tasks in the lab, and are shown lab equipment.

The program has brought about 100 middle school students each summer to come one Wednesday to shadow a scientist for a couple of hours. To give as many students as possible the opportunity, each student can only do it once. It’s been a lot of fun and very successful. It’s a free program, offered only during the summer. It takes a little time to coordinate between the teachers, the parents, and the scientists. I have some undergraduate volunteers who are science majors who pick up the students at the pick-up spot and deliver them to their scientist, and the middle school student gets to talk with both the undergraduate and the scientist. It’s entirely voluntary.

Some scientists may not want to work with middle school students. I want scientists who are excited to show their labs to middle school students. In fact, a wide range of scientists participate, physicists, computer scientists, astronomers, biologists, so I’m able to pair a middle school student with the appropriate scientist to match the student’s own interest.”

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Gwen Stovall's Lab (not present in photos) UT Student scientist: Dorothy Nguyen (released)f Location: Painter 2.14 Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released), Tre’von Martin Smith grey t-shirt (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Gwen Stovall’s Lab (not present in photos)
Students: Nathan Gantala in stripes (released), Tre’von Martin Smith grey t-shirt (released)

As you assess STEM in the elementary and highs schools of this country, do you see signs of hope for the future state of science in the U.S.? What are the challenges that are most concerning to you? What recommendations would you make to the “powers that be” to improve the state and status of STEM in American education?

“The new movement in science communication is great. I’m trying to launch a course on that at the University of Texas. I’d love to teach that. But in the meantime, a second program I participate in is ‘Present your PhD Thesis to a 12 Year Old.’ Graduate students present a simplified version of their PhD thesis in middle school classrooms or community centers. This program gives emerging scientists the opportunity to communicate their discoveries to middle school students and fuel students’ curiosity and enthusiasm for science. Importantly, the program also provides a framework for graduate students to participate in community outreach and develop their science communication skills at an early stage in their science careers.

Presenters develop a visual, interactive presentation on their PhD thesis that can be easily understood by middle school students. Each presentation is approximately 20 minutes long, and an engaging interactive format is encouraged. Previous exemplary presentation samples are available for viewing, and new presentations are carefully vetted during practice sessions aimed at helping the new presenter develop a high-quality presentation. During practice talks for each new presenter, there is an audience of three or more experienced graduate student presenters from the program. This setting provides ample opportunities for the new presenters to meet the outreach group and to benefit from feedback from more experienced presenters with multiple perspectives based on lessons they have learned and feedback from their previous presentations.

The grad students of today are going to become the professors of tomorrow. If they already have the skills to communicate their scientific research to lay audiences, that’s a good thing. Scientists have to do a better job of communicating with non-scientists.

Another positive development is that CURE is starting to catch on. CURE stands for course-based undergraduate research experience. At the University of Texas Austen, the Freshman Research Initiative is an example of this novel idea, which is now being adopted at other universities and at local high schools. I see it first hand with my high school students who work with me here in the lab every summer. Engaging students in doing real scientific research can be a real remedy for the problems we’re having with STEM education in America.”

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Dr. Hong Qiao (Bo Zhao) Location: NMS 5.324 Students: Alexander Steyaert in blue soccer shirt (released) , Sruti Ramachandran in light blue shirt (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Dr. Hong Qiao (Bo Zhao)
Student:  Sruti Ramachandran in light blue shirt (released)

What advice do you have for elementary, middle, and high school teachers who want to better prepare their students to be successful in STEM at the university level? What would you like to see them do more of with their students? 
“I would encourage teachers to do more inquiry-based instruction. My wife was an elementary school teacher and now is a specialist at a low SES school. I have great respect for the work they do. There is so much pressure in schools today, particularly in low SES schools, that teachers often don’t want to venture into inquiry-based instruction because of the fear that their students won’t score well on the standardized tests.

However, even at the younger age an inquiry-based teaching approach has a lot of advantages. Active learning, hands-on learning works at that age level, gets them engaged. Inquiry-based (as opposed to content-based) teaching in particular has been shown to result in both higher content retention and more positive attitudes toward the subject matter on the part of the students, so definitely I would advise teachers to become more inquiry-based as they plan their teaching at all grade levels.”

Could you comment specifically on science fairs … what is good, as well as what isn’t so good. Is there a place for Science Fairs today or is that an idea that has outlived its time? Is there a better way to generate student creativity in science and engineering at the elementary and high school level? How would you make them better?

“Involve university undergraduate science students in helping younger children do science fair projects. At the elementary school level, I think very highly of science fair projects, but I am less enthusiastic about science fair projects at the high school. For younger students it’s a way of doing science and finding the thrill of discovery. You don’t get the same thrill doing an experiment in a class. But to pursue something you’re interested in and find answers to the questions you have can be exciting. They are doing a form of science.

However, I don’t like the politics that often go into judging science fair projects. How much did the student do vs. how much did the parents do? But a lot of times it is the first place where a student does an experiment where they don’t know the outcome and they have an interest in finding out. They are collecting data and trying to find an answer to a question they are interested in, and it’s a great introduction to science.”

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016. Instructor: Tony Gonzales Location: NMS 1.228 Students: Jan MacGregor in white t-shirt (released) , Elena Alvarado in pink glasses (released)

Middle school students participated in the FRI Shadow a Scientist summer program at UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences on July 20, 2016.
Instructor: Tony Gonzales
Students: Jan MacGregor in white t-shirt (released) , Elena Alvarado in pink glasses (released)

How does a child grow up to become a scientist? How did you?

“When I was in high school I had a great biology teacher. Students really like subjects they had a great teacher for. My teacher in high school was passionate about Biology and his enthusiasm for the subject made coming to class the highlight of the school day. I came to UT as a pre-med major because of the excitement I experienced as a high school biology student. When I got to the University, I was a really good test taker, multiple choice, short answer, making really good grades, straight As, which is important in pre-med. Then, I took as an elective a plant anatomy class with a plant anatomist who was one of the leaders in the world. His test was a two-question essay test. I did really poorly on my first test with him. It was a wake-up call for me. I realized I wasn’t really learning the concepts, just memorizing. I ended up taking another plant physiology course, and I started doing research with the teacher of that class and ended up not going to medical school. Today, I’m a plant biologist. I’m interested in how plants respond to signals in their environment. It’s called signal transduction. Any signals that a cell responds to first have to be perceived by the cell’s receptors, typically on the cell surface. The receptors trigger a biochemical chain of events inside the cell that allow the cells respond. So light can be a signal or temperature. And the plant responds accordingly. Plants have evolved exquisite signaling pathways to respond to a variety of signals including stress signals. Plants can integrate many signals that are occurring simultaneously. For example a recent report shows that the tip of a plant root can sense and respond to up to 15 different signals at the same time. Basic research on plant cell signaling is very important for our future. As our global population increases we will need to grow crops in nutrient-poor soils in areas subject to drought. Our understanding of how plants respond to signals could be the key to successfully growing crops in these less desirable locations.

Young students really get interested in science by doing science. They have some kind of special ability, a kind of radar. They know whether they are doing real science or not, whether what they are doing leads to new knowledge or is just a rehash of something that’s already known. They have the potential for discovery. They have the potential to be published. I publish papers with students. 

That’s the secret sauce as far as getting young students interested in science: Make it real.”

Wise words from Greg Clark: “Make it real.”

You might enjoy reading a student’s description of his experience with the Shadow a Scientist program. You can find it here and see some more photos. I look forward to seeing other similar programs springing up around the country. What a fantastic way to inspire students to see themselves as future STEM professionals. Doesn’t it make you wonder if there is any way you could connect your students to similar experiences?

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Filed under children as scientists, FRI, Greg Clark, inquiry science, science fair, Shadow a Scientist, Uncategorized, University of Texas, University of Texas Austin

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