Clinton Global Initiative America: Hot Stuff or Hot Air?

As the heat gets turned up on investments in STEM education I am looking forward to seeing how – and if – the Clinton Global Initiative America STEM Education working group can help “move the needle” so to speak.

My guest post, “The Clinton Global Initiative America: Hot Stuff or Hot Air,” on the Small and Medium Business Blog chews on some questions about whether or not being a small organization focused on working locally can be part of a conversation that is focused on being big and “going to scale.”

Comments, thoughts and suggestions for the CGI STEM Education working group program are welcomed!

STEM, The White House and the Change We Need Now

Me with Kumar Garg, Senior Policy Analyst for the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Each month the White House convenes groups monthly as “Champions for Change” – a chance for a diverse cross-section of stakeholders to come together with policy makers and talk about what the issues are, what’s working – and where we need to go from here.

12 Champions for Change.

Last week I was invited to be a “notable guest” at a Champions for Change convening held by the Office of Public Engagement and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In addition to recognizing a dozen “Champions for Change” – dynamic teachers, scientists, researchers and students hard at work engaging girls and women in science and technology – the convening asked the 150 or so attendees to spend the afternoon chewing on three topics:

1)      changing the image of women and girls in STEM

2)      mentoring

3)      workforce development.

The Champions have written some terrific blogs – each with insights worth checking out.

I had the chance to be in the session on changing the image of women and girls in STEM. The group included representatives from education companies and mining companies; teachers at schools and district CEOs; professional science societies and media mavens; nonprofit organizations and education activists.

Talking tech during the breakout session.

Here are the ideas I left the conversation thinking about:

We need to disaggregate data – and generalizations – about girls and women and STEM. The issues are not the same for a groups or at all times. The issues of engaging and supporting young girls to develop fluency with science thinking are different than issues of PhD candidates dropping out before completing their doctorates. At Project Exploration African American girls are the MOST likely to be engaged in our programs and the least likely to have ongoing opportunities to stay involved with STEM once they get hooked. For our girls, interest isn’t the issue – opportunity is. For Caucasian girls in some of my colleagues’ programs in suburban, more affluent schools, social stigmas may keep them from even exploring if they have an interest in science.

In the breakout group.

We need to be less about large-scale science “competitions” (many of which are supported by critically important corporations) and more about science thinking and learning by doing. (Thanks toLucy Friedman for raising this issue).Focusing on competition in science can turn off large numbers of students with families and cultural backgrounds that do not focus on individual or team achievement and also can disengage girls who are more interested in working in groups in non-competitive settings. Project Exploration lets students’ progress into programs that require increasing competence based on their interests; we have fun and play games but science learning for us is about individual and group experiences, communication and reflection.

Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President, welcoming the convening.

We need to show more of the images of girls and women we know are involved with – and love – STEM.Mainstream media images of women in science show women who are often one-dimensional and, if they’re really “smart” often socially inept. In fact, we should be focusing on highlighting girls as INTERESTED in STEM rather than continuing to frame the issue in terms of girls NOT being interested in STEM. Further more, we should not be talking about science as the “end.” Science is not – and cannot be simply about “science for science’s sake.” Science opens doors onto observational and experiential adventure – and enables girls to make discoveries about the world around them as well as themselves. If anyone needs images, or narratives of girls in STEM who learn it, love it and use it – even if they decide NOT to be scientists – Project Exploration has these in spades.

Dr. John Holdren, Director of the White House Office on Science and Technology Policy.

Finally, we need to stop defining the issue of STEM and girls’ participation in terms of deficits in “teacher preparation” and (or vs. depending on who is speaking) “parent engagement.” In my opinion we need to reframe the entire discussion in 21st century terms: young people have access to any information they want at any time. The real questions are 1) what is the role of an adult in a young person’s life? 2) what are the experiences worth having to support girls’ to develop fluency with the skills STEM affords? 3) how should adults organize themselves around young people’s development to ensure students get – and can stay – involved with STEM pathways throughout their lives? At Project Exploration these are our defining questions. As we search for the answers we’re coming up with some ideas about the real change we need now for girls and STEM.

Three champions for change! Eileen Sweeney (Project Exploration Board member ermerita), Motorola Mobility, me and Anita Krishnamurthi, After School Alliance.
NOTE: This blog was also posted on the Project Exploration blog.

The ACT, Science and the Slim Six

This is Cameron. He is a Project Exploration intern at the Fossil Lab at the University of Chicago. He will be an 11th grader at North Lawndale College Prep. He is cleaning rock off the bones of a 110 million year old crocodile.

This is Rachel. She will be a 7th grader at Kenwood Academy. She is dusting for prints as part of our Forensics Investigators program. The students investigated a mock crime scene in Washington Park with scientists from the Illinois State Police.

If all goes well, Cameron and Rachel will be in the “slim six” – the slim six percent of African Americans who met college readiness standards in science on the 2011 ACT.

As measured by 2011 ACT scores only 23% of Illinois students – from public and private schools – are ready for college. The ACT is four-hour long national college placement exam that measures students’ content knowledge in English, Math, Reading and Science.  As reported by Rosalind Rossi in the Chicago Sun Times today, in Illinois in all subjects African American students scored the lowest amongst their White, Hispanic and Asian peers.

What’s going on here? Why are African Americans so far behind their counterparts in  – and in science in particular? Are they uninterested in science? Maybe science just “isn’t for them.”

Our experience at Project Exploration suggests otherwise. Across our youth-science programs we can’t meet student demand. Currently the greatest demand is by principals and African American families for boys’ programming to match services for girls. When given the opportunity to do meaningful, hands-on work, alongside adults who are passionate and knowledgeable, students don’t just take advantage of a program they come back for more. We know this from more than a decade of programming with more than 1000 students.

Then what IS going on? What is the deal with these ACT scores?

I think a few things but the main one is that science magnifies the inequities in education generally. It’s a peculiar subject.

From an academic standpoint science weeds out and  (in some cases by design) pushes out students who struggle with reading and writing. The most “fun stuff” in high school science (experiments and dissections) is most often the reserve of students in the highest performing groups and Advanced Placement classes. If you don’t read well or write well it’s unlikely you’ll get to be part of those programs.

From a resource perspective under-resourced teachers in already under-resourced schools don’t have the time, tools or professional development they need to do right by science and by their students – much less what they need for themselves to be stellar teachers.

From and educational policy perspective science lives a far third behind reading and math; test scores on standardized tests don’t measure science with the same frequency, intensity as reading and math. But the standardized testing itself may be what’s most detrimental of all:  multiple choice and short answer tests reduce the very creative, problem solving and observational skills that science, engineering and technology to their most superficial versions.

But even if STEM was given plenty of time and teachers had the training and support they need there is a critical third factor at work for students least likely to be prepared in science for college: out of school experiences.

We know that science in school is important, but it will not be sufficient for ( in the framework offered by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) preparing and inspiring young people when it comes to science.

Students don’t really know what science IS till they get to do it. And they can’t conceptualize science as a way of life if they never meet people who live it. The best, most well-researched curriculum in the world won’t reach students who are disengaged and disenfranchised from school.

If things go well Cameron and Rachel will be in the slim six percent of African American students who are ready for science in college: they’ll not only have the reading, writing, and math skills they need, they’ll have experiences that will enable them to get a C or higher in a freshman biology class. If things go really well, they’ll discover a way of thinking about the world and wonder for the world around them through science. They’ll come to understand the difference between evidence and opinion and they’ll know that if they CHOOSE to pursue science there’s a place for them in it.

What will it take for things to go well? It will take opportunities for Cameron and Rachel not only to GET interested in science, but also ongoing opportunities to STAY involved with science and through formal – and informal opportunities – to develop the skill set they’ll need to get a competitive score on the ACT test.

But what about the other 94% of African American students?

They need the same things as Cameron and Rachel. But unless there is a plan the slim six will stay slim. The community invested in education and STEM initiatives need to get organized with students at the center of learning systems. We need our rich science community to make pathways into science transparent and available. We all have a role to play – inspiring , equipping, and sustaining students.

This is one case where we’d like to see the slim get fatter.

TedX Uchicago… Ideas (Possibly) Worth Spreading

This post is a kind of “Cliff Notes” to the TEDx Uchicago held this past April 17th… and a little more.

This past January I was invited to be the MC for the TEDx Uchicago. I accepted the offer as a good-willing alumna and with hopes of supporting the enterprising undergrads who decided to sink their teeth into the TED “movement.”

If you aren’t familiar with TED, the official version runs along the lines of the following:  TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a nonprofit effort devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” It originated as a single, four-day conference in Monterrey, California 25 years ago. Now an annual event, the conference invites the “world’s leading thinkers and doers” to speak for 18 minutes. Since 2006 many talks have made it online, where they can be viewed for free. And viewed they are.  In July 2010 290 million global viewers were watching, (bringing an interesting perspective to the phrase “the whole world is watching” but more on that later).

TED speakers are usually extremely effective and charismatic, they have bitten off an unusual or urgent problem and are wrassling with it full force; they look at the world through unique lenses, or they’re just extremely good communicators and help bridge the gap between the technical and the wonderful. (Plus they get pulled off the stage just about the time you’d need a commercial break.)

“TEDx” is the way TED is going “to scale.” You may not get accepted for the California conference. You may not have the bucks (reported at $6,000) it will take to get in the door if you’re lucky enough to be invited after you apply. But you CAN organize your own event.

And so, back to TEDx Uchicago 2011.

After getting the schedule two days before the event I sat down to actually script the program. Naturally any event hosted at the University of Chicago needs to be grounded appropriately. Of course I indulged in the expected happy slights: “You know the University of Chicago:  The place where fun comes to die.”  “Where the most popular shirt says ‘Because I was waitlisted at Hogwarts.'” “It’s 9am on Sunday. Welcome to the church of the mind – or did some of you stop at Crerar Library on the way over?” “Myth-busters alert: The size of the dorm rooms at Pierce Dormitory do NOT violate U.S. Prison Codes.” (And so on.)

When it came time for closing remarks I tried to summarize what the audience of 600+ heard from speakers throughout the day through the filter of the conference theme, “Reinventing the Life of the Mind”  – with acknowledgements to speakers along the way.  (*Cue: This is the Cliff Notes portion of this post).

Reinventing the life of the mind may require we keep the following in mind: Legalize marijuana and license vice (Leitzel); visualize sound in terms of symmetry (Cabral); see the shape and form in science, visualize what can’t be seen (Sereno); and keep in mind that you don’t need to see to believe or to build (Downey).

We cannot reinvent ourselves without others. 

The way we communicate is pathetic – it’s so “coded” and oblique. If we could crack the code through cybernetic transplants we could get REALLY personal (Warwick). We become our best selves through challenge. (Csikszentmihaly)  If Facebook were a country it would be the third largest in the world (Katz) – but collectively we are – and MUST – be about so much more than Farmville.  The revolution of reinvention can, it must, begin with a constitution conceived in liberty for ALL. (Sanchez de Lozada) Considering the needs of others does not have to mean that we can’t make financial profits. If anything, financial investing can be smart, non-exploitative, preserve the environment and do good, all at the same time. (Greenblatt)

So let us be intentional and explicit – in word AND gesture – about our purposes, our ends. (Goldin-Meadow) In fact, if we choose “a new gold standard” we will discover the resources in ourselves to be change makers. (Inglis)

We are in control of our destinies. We must invent the future we see in our minds’ eye. But if that future is to be for all people, rich AND poor, we must leave the 19th Century model of education in the past. (Strong) The future is about questions (Wolcott) – and asking questions leads to liberation.

As we think of the future, we have learned today that we may predict with some degree of certainty that we can look forward to TEDx Uchicago 2012. (Frey)

TEDx Uchicago was a blast, was Tweeted, was LinkedIn, covered in the school newspaper, the Maroon  and was livestreamed. I like doing stage production; writing under duress and delivering the speech before the ink is dry is fun. And, for a Battlestar Galactica fan, how uncanny and cool is it to get to meet and introduce Kevin Warwick  – someone who is actually trying to become a Cylon? (Sure, he calls it “Cyborg” but we know what’s really frackin’ going on.)

TEDx Uchicago is not the only TEDx I’m involved with. Through Project Exploration I’m involved with TEDx Midwest and TEDxMidwest Youth efforts.

But I’m not a believer. I am not a “TED-Head.” I am suspicious. I had someone tell me that TED the ‘contribution of our generation’ under the impression that my involvement meant that I, too, was on board with the movement.

Critiques of TED are not rampant, though there are a few. For the most part complaints target the elitist nature of “getting in.” Event organizers try to create an environment of intimacy and exchange;  a chance for audience members to mix easily with presenters and for ideas to flow like wine (or is it honey?). Who wouldn’t want to be picked?

But as the TEDx Youth event approaches this fall I am trying to work through what, exactly, my issues are, with the endeavor, particularly given how many teachers,  colleagues and friends I know who love the TED videos.

The well-produced videos of TED presenters are manna from heaven for teachers who are in need of concise, compelling explanations and inspirations from passionate experts to use in classrooms. The presentations are free online – really free – you can just watch them. Talk about public education for the 21st Century.

These are good things.

But if it takes work to pry open the doors of auditorium to get in as an attendee (which is what’s at the heart of my efforts with the TEDx Midwest Youth event – leveraging this opportunity for my students to get in the door, get front row seats and have a chance to be affirmed as well as inspired in their own endeavors), it remains to be seen what can possibly be done with the speakers.

Candice Katz and Gabrielle Lyon at TedX Uchicago - April 17, 2011

We can hope the line-up at the UChicago event is not par for the course for TED or TEDx in general. Of the 15 speakers on the program 2 were women. One of these, however, was a last-minute fill-in. Which means that if Candice Katz  – cupcake afficionado, gamer and geek extraordinaire –  and had not shown up to fill in for Adi Sideman on behalf of Oddcast there would have been 14 men and 1 woman.  (I am not counting myself, though my time on stage probably added up to 18 minutes when all was said and done). Furthermore presenters were 75%  Caucasian; not particularly representative of the population of Chicago, and not representative of the current student population of the University of Chicago either.

How is this possible? Part of the issue stems probably stems from who is in the room when planning begins, who knows who, who has connections to whom, and who thinks what is cool.

Another way of thinking about it is “like begets like.” It’s something I’ve been thinking of as the “Groupon Effect.”

The bodega in my neighborhood will never be listed on Groupon. No-one who works at Groupon will ever go into the bodega or consider what it might have to offer. And so my neighborhood bodega, which makes the best tamales in the city of Chicago, will never be overrun by people who have discovered it through Groupon. Because Groupon will never discover it.

Which brings us back to the title of this blog.

What ideas are worth spreading? It depends on who you ask. Or, in the case of TED, who you know or who you’ve heard of.  The origins of TED are rooted in the idea that the convenings should be designed to feed, inspire and expand people’s minds and imaginations (as opposed to drifting into current events, or the political.) I get the power of origins and I appreciate the founders’ intents on this front.

But herein, perhaps, lies the root of the struggle ahead in my blossoming relationship with my new friend TED. Life is not apolitical. The issues affecting WHO has a chance to “explore and discover” are rooted in classism and racism. And while TED as an endeavor may not be racist or classist, the active goal is to bring together the “best,” the “most,” “world-class,” “remarkable” “extraordinary” people. The antonyms of these words include “common,” “low-class,” “ordinary,” “poor,” and, of course, “worst.”

So, the crux of the issue may become (when it comes to the audience members for the youth event,) who is the “best?” In upcoming months, as recruitment for the audience of the  TEDx Midwest Youth event takes shape, we have a chance to define this -and this is the area I’m chewing on. I’ll continue to do what I can to encourage the “higher-ups” who make the decisions about these things, that in their drive to surface “the best and brightest” students we should be look for students who may not be that shiny yet; that the “most deserving students” may not be that driven or extraordinary yet; that the students who ought to get in as audience members may not have heard of TED yet. 

Because if there is one idea that may be worth spreading, it may be one that was put into place in the early days of the University of Chicago: the youngest, greenest students (aka “first-years”), if they are to be inspired to be scholars in earnest, need to be taught by the best teachers.

This may be an idea  worth spreading… Now we just have to get the “right people” in the room.

Project Exploration at TedX Midwest 2010

Blogging with the Invisible Community – and Why It Matters

Blog Training at Project Exploration

[Note – I’ve been offline for a while. Thanks for your patience!]

This past weekend I was part of Science Online 2011, a conference held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Organized for the past five years by the dynamic duo of Bora Zikovich and Anton Zuiker, Science Online serves as a catalytic convergence for writers who write about science and scientists who blog – plus every kind of person in between involved with science communication, mainstream or otherwise.

The conference is relatively small by design – roughly 300 people and a fairly tight program dedicated to issues specific to science communication and the blogosphere.

From a glance, the attendees seem to mostly be between the ages of 25 and 55 and at least half are women. More than most are geeky. (For example, jokes by the comedian during the dinner banquet ranged from “So a bacteria/viruses/gene walks into a bar…” to deep consideration of the alternative units Han Solo COULD have chosen in lieu of “parsecs” to describe the speed of the Millennium Falcon in the original Star Wars, (Star Wars IV of course).

My attendance at this conference in 2008 helped launch the Project Exploration blog and social media program. I love this group, their energy and the way in which they welcome techies and newbies alike. It’s an encouraging, proselytizing, non-condescending group: “If you don’t blog you CAN, and you SHOULD and we can HELP!”

It’s also fairly representative of the current “face” of science- the face Project Exploration is working to change, literally and metaphorically. Project Exploration is a nonprofit science education organization I cofounded which is dedicated to leveling the playing field in science through personalized experiences with science and scientists.

The Invisible Community

My presentation title at the conference (and the title of this blog) is drawn from a line in Einstein’s credo:  Although I am a typical loner in life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice keeps me from feeling isolated.

I find myself thinking a lot about this quote. Project Exploration students are part of this invisible community. As students who struggle in school they’re invisible to the science initiatives that focus on the academic elite; as students who may not see themselves as smart and students who struggle with (or are pushed out of ) school their ideas, curiosities and passions are often invisible to teachers, the adults in their families and sometimes even to themselves. And yet, simply by being curious, by having ideas, by struggling towards something meaningful – truth, beauty, justice – they are part of the invisible community in which Einstein found solace and belonging.

And, as bloggers Project Exploration students are also part of the “Science Online” community.

Science. In Crisis?

When we hear about science and education in mainstream media – which we do nearly daily – we hear about crisis. We read references to Sputnik, which although the size of a basketball, cast a disproportionately-sized shadow across America in the late 1950s. We constantly hear about the ineffectiveness of teachers who are, at their best, some or more of the following: afraid of science; inept at inquiry or constructivist-based teaching methods; untrained, uncertified, unsupportive, uninterested.

These are the dominant images of science. We rarely see science the way it lives at Project Exploration: groups of African American and Latino young people deeply and meaningfully engaged in science-immersion programs shaped by their interests and questions, taught by scientists of color. Mainstream portrayals of the crisis in science education are devoid of images of science as interdisciplinary or infused with art, creativity and adventure. Yet these are the hallmarks of high-caliber science, and the science our young people engage with at Project Exploration.

Scratch beneath the shiny surface of the ever-present calls for “science for all” heralded in this time of crisis and we find the dull reality of science for “some:” regular and repeated investments in students who read well and write well, in students who have facility with math, in students who are already interested in science, in students whose parents can pay for out-of-school enrichment experiences.

Nine teenage Latinas and African American girls tracking coyotes in Yellowstone, led by a Muslim Jordanian-American woman is “normal” at Project Exploration, rather than the exception. None of these students were required to pay an application fee, demonstrate a B+ average on their report card, or prove their commitment to pursuing a degree in science in college to participate in Project Exploration programs. They needed to be curious, open-minded and willing to try something new. They needed to show up every day during the expedition preparation week –and they needed to be willing to write about their experiences everyday. Increasingly, our students are also being asked to blog about their experiences via the Project Exploration Blog.

Metrics that Matter in the Invisible Community

After nearly a decade of programs serving more than 1000 participants we know a lot about what’s happening with our students. We know more than 95% are graduating high school and more than half of our high school graduates are pursuing higher education. Of these more than 60% are pursuing- or have already received – a degree in a science-related major. These statistics are manna for those whose vision is colored by the “science in crisis” lenses.

However, based on five- and ten-year retrospective evaluations we also know the metrics that matter to students. What do students’ care about?

  • Someone knows their name
  • The program “never ends”
  • They learn how to write
  • They’re in the news

In the summer of 2009 a group of students, charged with the mission of designing “The Best Science Program Evah’” mandated that using new media and blogging were core skills to be developed. And the student blog was born.

Project Exploration immediately adapted a blogging 101 syllabus I picked up from the 2008 Science Online Conference. The blog training is incorporated into their research-preparation for a field-expedition. We start by having students create a blog for themselves and learning the basic skills of writing a post, inserting links and images, choosing widgets and themes. After the training we immerse them in real science alongside scientists. We write with them – in journals – every day. Some of these journal entries turn into blog posts for the blog. After the field program is done some of the students continue to blog on our site and their own.

Making the Invisible Visible

So, what do students blog about when they blog? They blog about being in the field and the process of science. They write about how their view of science – and themselves – changes through their experiences. They write about events with Project Exploration. They write about political activities they’re involved with that have little to do with science. They write tips on how to be better bloggers. Sometimes we hire students as “resident bloggers” and commission them to cover science events run by other organizations.

Their posts are seen. They are known. On our blog we have a map of the world that marks visitors in red – nearly every country has a dot. We have a widget that tracks visitors state by state and we’ve had visits from all 50.

When we consider what students say matters to THEM about a science program, blogging hits nearly every mark: they’re known by name; they’re seen; they learn how to write; they’re not only in the news, in fact, they’re making the news that other people read.

But there is another reason blogging with the invisible community matters. While I was at the Science Online conference I took the opportunity to approach one of the most web-and-online-community-savvy women I’ve ever met. I asked her if she knew of efforts to increase the diversity of access and participation of communities of color in science online. She said, “Well, I know there are individual people who talk about this as an issue.” I tried again. “Are people in your realm (in her case specifically the online community management-realm) ever concerned that the community of participants is small – that the same people are talking to each other even though so many new tools and platforms are being developed? Are there any discussions about needing more diverse community members to broaden the conversation?” Somewhat mystified by what I was getting at she finally said, “I guess I think it’s up to individual people to bring their diverse friends in.”

Voices of people of color are missing in the science-communication realm; and stories about science are missing in the blogospheres that serve communities of color. I went to the conference to get caught up on blogging platforms, new online tools and to highlight the role blogging can play for engaging young people with meaningful experiences with science. What I realize now is that the blogosphere needs our students as much as our students need the blogosphere.

When this happens the invisible community may just become visible – and the online community will be less of a gated community.

END NOTE – CHECK OUT THE POST BY ED YOUNG, fellow attendee of Science Online 2011 and superb science writer…who tackles some similar themes from another angle.  “Are science blogs stuck in an echo chamber? Chamber? Chamber?” Nice point about people needing to “do what you can” and “work to their strengths.”

January 4-8, 2010-Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM) Updates

January 4, 2010

For the next five days I’ll be in Washington DC representing Project Exploration at a Symposium for recipients of the Presidential Award for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. I’ll be blogging and posting on the Project Exploration blog.

I will post links to the relevant stories below. If you are looking for additional information, press stories, photos, etc., please visit the Project Exploration news page about the award and symposium events or visit the blog and use the tag cloud to search for “Educate to Innovate.”

January 4, 2010: “Did you ask a good question today?” – Update 1

January 5, 2010: “It’s not a pipeline, it’s a watershed” – Update 2

January 6, 2010: President Obama Recognizes Project Exploration’s Junior Paleontologists in Remarks to the Nation – Update 3 from Washington, DC.

More to come.

January 11, 2010: “Commencement: Innovate to Educate.”  Update 4 from Washington, DC.

President Barack Obama poses with Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring winners in the Blue Room of the White House Jan. 6, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)

Flying under the radar…

December 4, 2009

I am just leaving the Midwest Afterschool Science Academy, a 3-day convergence of youth service providers, “mid-line” staff coordinators and managers, and a smattering of funders and state-policy-level stakeholdes, mostly from Midwestern states. Organized in large part by Jeff Buehler, with support from the Mott and Kauffman Foundations, the project has its origins in a 2008 National Conference on Science and Technology in Out of School Time coorganized by the Coalition for Science After School and Project Exploration.

Ok, enough introductions.

Something is happening, for the most part under the radar, that may have enormous implications for science and society as we know them both.

Advocates for youth are asking questions about science – and how it can be for their kids. Let’s skip over, for a minute, the practicalities of the work at hand: equipping folks to help students learn science, figuring out what the “standards of practice” should be, the tensions brewing between the so-called “formal” education system and the so-called “informal education” system.

Youth service providers, ranging from local social service agencies to national entites like 4-H, work with exactly the kinds of students least likely to get involved with science: that is, they’re serving kids of color, kids from families who can’t afford fee-based programs, kids who have disabilities. They’re serving millions of them, everyday. These people are getting involved with science – and they want access to it for their kids. Not just “keep-em” occupied activities; they want high-caliber programs that will give young people in ther programs the ability to think critically, go to college and get top line,top paying jobs. They want their kids to do science that is fun and inspiring and real.

Why should anyone care? Because in the last three weeks we’ve seen the tip of the iceberg on a national-policy roll-out to support science education. The New York Times heralded the news November 23 with a nearly-full page article entitled “White House Pushes Science and Math Education.” Time Warner is going to “Connect a Million Minds;”  the MacArthur Foundation is underwriting video game strategies; Sesame Street is on board: science will live in Elmo’s world. “” has launched. The “Race to the Top” is on!

It’s clear the kids already at the top academically will benefit from these efforts. What is unclear is whether anyone else will. When the primary purpose of an investment in science is national competitiveness, investments, by and large, are geared towards those kinds of students (and corresponding teachers) who can help move this agenda forward.

Which is why the convergence of  folks who came to the Academy is so relevant.

Conversations and questions at the Academy were impassioned: What’s worth knowing and experiencing in science? How can I make this stuff relevant to my kids? Who can help me? What should we be working FOR? What should our agenda be? What can and should change? How will we make these changes happen? Who else is doing this work? How can I work with them? What is next for us?

These are not just curriculum questions, these are the questions that may be at the heart of a nascent movement that could fundamentally transform who science is for – and who gets to do it.

Us. It’s an identity. It’s an understanding that there is a WE.

At lunch on the last day, before Dianne Miller’s closing session, I asked one of the members of the Missouri Afterschool Network if she felt there were folks from the K-12 system she wishes had been at the conference. She said, “You know, sometimes when you’re just getting started, you don’t really want everyone in the room – people who have really different ideas about what kids should do after school. For example, some people really think kids should just be doing remediation work after school; having that added to the conversation right now wouldn’t really be helpful, sometimes it’s better to fly under the radar for a while.”

And so we will. We will fly under the radar while we find allies who want to put kids at the center of teaching and learning and who care about using out of school experiences to help kids develop vision and passion and voice. We’ll find and learn from models that help us envision how science could be different for kids. And we will use these models to fight to change the world in which science for some remains acceptable.

As has been said before, beware a revolution that comes singing…

The Road to Education


The invitation only “Chicago Contributes” event at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium September 10, 2009, convened by the University of Chicago, attracted faculty, trustees, alums, Washington DC policy makers and funders. I was an invited guest, representing Project Exploration, primarily attending for the second session of the day, Urban Education.

So, what would you hear if you got four people working in the thick of education reform onto a stage with the U.S. Secretary of Education and a moderator? If the event is being hosted by the University of Chicago you’ll (mostly) hear about the role of higher education in the work of urban schooling. And if the folks on stage are Linda “Teach’” Darling Hammond, Codirector of the School Redesign Network at Stanford University, John “Data-man” Easton, the new Director of the Institute of Education Sciences at the Department of Education; Tim “In the Know” Knowles, Director of the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, and Charles “No Pain No Gain” Payne – you’ll hear about how the work of schools and school improvement is hard.

In the midst of conversations about teacher merit pay and other corporate models being retrofitted for public education, panelists explained that when it comes to knowing how schools (and students and teachers) are doing, we have yet to figure out how to test this. We know that the tools being used right now don’t tell us much about what matters in the moment. Tim pointed out the practical uselessness of standardized tests for teachers. “They’re basically autopsy. By the time the results come in, it’s too late to do anything about them – the kids have already moved on.”

Moderator Ray Suarez, a UChicago alum, now a Senior News Correspondent for the NewsHour on PBS, only needed to scratch the surface of the issue of “resources” and the panel was off and running.(“Data-man” Easton had already taken off with the Secretary of Education by the time this conversation unfolded, but more about them later). “What is the reasonable level of resources for educating kids and how should they be distributed?”

Linda pointed out some countries have actually changed the way schools were funded in the interests of equity and fairness – with markedly positive results. “Countries that have worked on this – Finland, Singapore, Korea – fund schools centrally and equally and put more into schools that need it. Versus the United States, where top spending schools spend three times as much in the same states as the lowest level schools.”

“Should all kids be expected to learn the same things at the same time, regardless of what school they go to or where it is? Is this equal schooling?” wondered the moderator.

“Justice is not charity. It’s building systems that work for all children and all families,” explains Linda.

“What looks like the conceit of equality is actually the pretense of equality,” adds Charles.

“These are really good points. I’m going to make access to quality education for every student the anchor of my education policy platform. And I’m going to begin with equal funding for all schools” said Secretary Duncan.

Oh, wait. That last part didn’t happen. Secretary Duncan didn’t say those things. Actually he wasn’t there for the panel discussion.

During his opening remarks, Secretary Duncan outlined five areas of work taking needing attention at the national level: 1) raising the bar on standards 2) data systems that track students back to teachers and teachers back to schools of education 3) investing in great (teacher) talent and 4) working on the bottom 1% of high schools, (roughly 2000 schools), which produce 50% of the country’s dropouts. And 5) working with higher education to increase the number of college graduates.

I asked, “Secretary Duncan, I am concerned, especially for science education, that the investments being made won’t reach the students who need them most. Can you talk a little bit more about what it means to work with the 2000 lowest performing high schools you mentioned? How will we reach students who are currently not being served by schools?”

Secretary Duncan was glad to take my question. (My question was something like this – I was nervous. I can’t remember exactly what I said I really did ask a question though. Here is the evidence).

Embedded in Secretary Duncan’s answer, (which didn’t really address the question I’d asked), was the following statement: “What we have to do is create a critical mass of caring adults with high expectations. This is the change factor for kids in historically underperforming schools.”

I like this idea. I think this the only thing that matters for students who are not academically successful or have become hostile to school.

What’s most striking to me about the conversation about Chicago’s Contributions to Urban Education is that in the early days of the 21st Century the conversation being had was one that for the most part could have taken place in the early days of the 20th Century – about education in schools that were designed in the 19th Century.

Kids don’t start or stop learning when the school bell rings. What kids learn out of school may be just as powerful, if not more powerful, than what happens for them in school. Relationships give life to the power of what kids learn. Which is why Secretary Duncan’s point about caring adults with high expectations is so relevant.

Most of the current conversations about trying to making education more equitable are really about making education more about school, and in tandem making school more standardized, more measurable and more efficient. All things which are less likely to engage students who are currently left out, not participating and not finding measurable “success.”

Different standards could help schools organize instruction and teacher professional development. They could bring clarity for students, teachers and parents alike about what students ought to know and be able to do – but changing curriculum tends to have the most impact on students who are already engaged with schooling.  Here’s another example, increasing the availability of AP would be good; many schools that serve students of color, students who are poor and students who are immigrants don’t even offer them. But it’s important to remember these classes will be for students who are performing in the top 20%; they’re not investments likely to have a positive affect on non-AP track students or their teachers.

The persistence of the achievement gap can be linked to the lack of access to positive, stimulating, meaningful experiences that take place out of school. We may find that the road to 21st Century education for our least successful students ought to begin outside the classroom door.

Project Exploration Recipient of Presidential Award for Excellence


Just received word that earlier today the White House announced recipients of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Mentoring… Project Exploration was on the list.

At a time when the field of science does not yet represent the diversity that is America this award offers validation for our work to change the status quo – and is just plain AWESOME!!!!


NCLB meets New Haven firefighters? Curious…


Earlier this week the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of White New Haven firefighters, overturning a previous ruling by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. At the time I heard about it I mostly listened to the coverage and thought about the event in terms of the nomination process for Judge Sotomayor.

However, listening to a discussion earlier today on the Tavis Smiley Show amongst Tavis, UCLA Law Professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw and Supreme Court columnist for the New York Times, Adam Liptak, made me rethink the issues surrounding the test from another perspective – testing and K-16 students’ promotions – or lack thereof.

Crenshaw summarized during the conversation: New Haven “decided there were other ways to fairly assess who should be a firefighter. ” What implications might this kind of thinking have when it comes to discussing the role of to determine who gets promoted in school? Or who gets promoted to go to college? Or what kinds of schools (and teachers and students) have access to what kinds of programs and funding?

There is longstanding recognition of an “achievement gap” between Whites and Latinos, African Americans among others, as documented by standardized tests, tests which inevitably help set the course for students’ lives and workforce options long before they become adults. (See “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.”)

So, when I think about these issues and then read the following, (quoted from the June 29th New York Times article) in terms of education, I get a little anxious:

“In a concurrence, Justice Scalia predicted that the court would soon have to reach the larger constitutional question. “The war between disparate impact and equal protection will be waged sooner or later,” he wrote, “and it behooves us to begin thinking about how — and on what terms — to make peace between them.”

The rabbit-hole of NCLB is being re-dug these days by the Department of ED. And I’m wondering if Sec. Duncan and the Justice Roberts court might end up on the same curious playing field… the tilted one.