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Whazzup with “problem” kids?

I just got through reading a compelling guest column by David Stovall in the June issue of Catalyst. Stovall, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, spent most of his childhood labeled as “the one in class who “didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”

As I write this I’m in the heart of the Montana badlands rained out of fieldwork. Around me indoors and out are Project Exploration students – the inaugural team of the “Best Science Program Evah.” These Chicago Public School high schoolers are reading, writing, talking, drawing, cleaning fossils, taking photographs (to scale, with a scale bar) and even blogging. They’re having an adventure, not only in science, but in life. (The group is being led by Elena Schroeter, a graduate of CPS’ Curie High School, a Project Exploration alumna who studied geology at the University of Chicago, worked as Project Exploration’s youth programs coordinator, and is now pursuing a PhD at Drexel University in Paleontology. She came back this summer just to help Project Exploration launch this program.)

Stovall’s piece makes me wonder as I see our students in action, whether the “problem” kids, especially African American boys, who are getting expelled out of school are perhaps EXACTLY the kids we need to get into science.

I think of the kids I regularly meet who are the ones who “just can’t stay in their seat.” When I see these kids I think of them as explorers and wanderers. The challenge for me is to find a way to meet them where THEY are at (which, most often, isn’t in their seat). Then there are the kids that can’t seem to pay attention – if anything is out of the ordinary they draw attention to it immediately and everyone in the classroom ends up being along for the ride. These are the kids who “just can’t stay on target.” I see these kids as “noticers,” “wonder-ers”… curious ones.

What if these are the scientists we need?

Except they’re invisible; we can’t find them because we can’t see them. Sometimes we can’t see them because they’re corralled into the principal’s office, or out of school, or into a cell… not a living cell, a concrete one.

The enduring, relentless picture of suspensions provided by the data Catalyst brings to bear requires us to ask not “what’s up?” with problem kids but why we’re so limited in how we see kids and education.

Perhaps a decent piece of advice we could give to policy makers and funders calling for the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers is that the students they are looking for are already here – they just forgot to check the principal’s office.

Redefining Science Education – Remix

remix

In an essay entitledRedefining Science Education,” the Editor in Chief of Science Magazine, Bruce Alberts, essentially bit the hand that feeds him. According to Mr. Alberts, scientists – the ones who consume and produce the content of Science magazine – may have created the biggest problem in science education.

So what’s the problem that Alberts raises? Rather than teach students how to think scientifically what is generally happening is, “students are being told about science and being asked to remember facts.”

Mr. Alberts is disturbed. (He says it himself; I’m not saying it about him!)

In body of his essay Mr. Albert promotes an approach to “science education” that those of us working to inspire students to become engaged and inspired by science would likely find familiar and embrace. He advocates for helping students “generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations, understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge, and to participate productively in scientific practices and discourses.”  In sum, Alberts calls for equipping students to develop science as a way of knowing.

Unfortunately, Alberts points out, this is not how science is taught. (Remember, Alberts is criticizing the way scientists teach science in this article, though the standards he refers to are designed for K-8 teachers to employ and he ultimately roots the dilemma in science education in problems in elementary and high school teaching). The outcome of this flawed approach to science education is large numbers of adults who don’t use evidence to solve problems or embrace non-scientific explanations of how the natural world works.

Here’s the squelcher for me: Albert’s suggested solution to the problem. He recommends what we need is new assessments; tests that would better measure the strands of science education that are getting short shrift in the face of the facts.

I disagree with this “assessment.” While certainly having thoughtful, more inclusive assessments could be helpful in understanding how students are doing, such an approach may distract us from the heart of the matter.

We have standards and goals. We even now have standards for informal science education. The big problem in science education isn’t that we’re not testing appropriately, or that we’re not teaching appropriately, though these are, in fact, well documented issues that need attention and resources (and appropriately so). The real issue in science education that science, by design, is not for all, it’s not really even for most. Science is just for some. Until this aspect of science education is embraced as a real one we likely will not see much change  – regardless of how, or who, we test.

It’s critical we remember the primary sites where “real” “fun,” “engaging,” “authentic”and educational science experiences – (the ones Mr. Alberts implies we should aspire to) –  happen are ones in which participants are students who are performing academically at the top. These are the places – both in and out of school – where students get to dissect pigs, launch rockets and see their own DNA. (To name just a few of the more “fun” things students, if they’re lucky, get to do).

We need act on the idea that science  is valuable for everyone – not just for students who will become scientists and not just for students who are academically successful.

In this realm scientists do have a role to play – both in and out of college. If students are not interested in science by 8th grade it is unlikely that they will choose to pursue science in high school or beyond. They may take AP classes in science as part of a college-track program but if they don’t actually LIKE science they certainly won’t pursue it in college as a possible profession.

Some things could change bit by bit: Scientists could come out of the ivory tower and off the printed page to share their work in person. Museums could take their researchers from behind the glass and put them on the museum floor. Not to run “demonstrations” but to have conversations about the questions they’re asking, the way in which they are trying to answer those questions and the progress and challenges they work through along the way. Bring some show and tell, tools of the trade.

One of the arenas in which the kind of science that Mr. Alberts calls for  can most increasingly happen is in out of school time settings, in learning environments like the ones created by Project Exploration, where we work to level the playing field – while also offering more time, flexibility, and personalized experiences. Students are invited regardless of what their grade point average is. Programs are free. They work on real science with scientists.

Last week I was talking with one of our students, DeAndre, at our Senior Celebration. DeAndre is about to go into 11th grade. “What keeps you coming back to Project Exploration?” I asked “This is a vacation day, and yet you’ve come to hang out with us. Why?” Here’s his answer: “What I love about science is that it can be different every day. It’s like a little surprise. It’s exciting. You can always learn something new.”

Scientists that work with Project Exploration – and we are lucky to have many – embrace a progressive approach to teaching. But they include a lot of facts. Facts take on meaning because the work the students are doing is meaningful to them. They are empowered by knowing information that they can use – and information that they can share with others.
There is a real problem in science education. Cf course teachers absolutely should have resources to become better science teachers.  Students – all students – should have a chance to do science that enables them to work through problems in a hands-on way regardless of their socioeconomic or academic standing or their reading ability. Such efforts require not only cool science “stuff” but also time in the day.  Until we believe that science really is for everyone and actually has value beyond a role in ensuring economic viability (aka “pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge”) at a national level, not much will really change.

Mr. Alberts, your assessment of the problem, and your assessment of the solution,  may need testing. I hope that we can work together to ensure all students have the opportunity to become inspired to be curious, to observe closely, to describe their observations in detail and effectively, and to share their passion and ideas with others.

(Did I say “students?” – maybe I meant “scientists.” I might need to get my facts straight.)

“Fave five” lessons about high school graduation and changing the face of science

The new face of science.

The new face of science.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009 was not really an exceptional day – unless you count having a glimpse through a window onto a world often unknown, rarely understood: What does it take to change the face of science? We got a sighting of it at Project Exploration’s Senior Celebration, held at the Garfield Park Conservatory. READ THE FULL POST and “Fave Five” recommendations on the Project Exploration Blog.

VANISHED! The achievement gap between boys and girls in math performance…

An exciting story in the New York Times yesterday: science departments at universities may be starting to become more equitable for women: “…men and women faculty in science, engineering and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities,” said the report, issued Tuesday. It found that women who applied for university jobs and, once they had them, for promotion and tenure were at least as likely to succeed as men.” That said, women applicants were still underrepresented and, if you read the actual news release from the National Academies, we see that the picture is still pretty grey:

  • Access to institutional resources: Men and women reported comparable access to many institutional resources, including start-up packages, travel funds, and supervision of similar numbers of postdocs and research assistants.  And in general, men and women spent similar proportions of their time on teaching, research, and service.  Although at first glance men seemed to have more lab space than women, this difference disappeared when other factors such as discipline and faculty rank were accounted for.  However, men appeared to have greater access to equipment needed for research and to clerical support, the report said.  
  • Tenure: In every field, women were underrepresented among candidates for tenure relative to the number of female assistant professors.  In chemistry, for example, women made up 22 percent of assistant professors, but only 15 percent of the faculty being considered for tenure.  Women also spent significantly longer time as assistant professors.  However, women who did come up for tenure review were at least as likely as men to receive tenure.
  • Salary: Women full professors were paid on average 8 percent less than their male counterparts, the report says.  This difference in salary did not exist in the ranks of associate and assistant professors

However, embedded in the New York Times story, was another story about another report from the National Academies that may get more play in upcoming months:  “The achievement gap between boys and girls in mathematics performance had narrowed to the vanishing point. “U.S. girls have now reached parity with boys, even in high school and even for measures requiring complex problem solving,” the Wisconsin researchers said. Continuing from the New York Times, “Differences between girls’ and boys’ performance in the 10 states were “close to zero in all grades,” they said, even in high schools where gaps had existed earlier. In the national assessment, they said, differences between girls’ and boys’ performance were “trivial.”

All of which makes me wonder a few things about the second report:

1) Should we be celebrating?

2) Does this mean that girls in poor schools are performing equally as poorly as boys?

2) Why is a subscription required to view research published an organization funded by public tax dollars (an ongoing irksome issue for me).

[Oh, I meant “3” not “2” for that last item. Math is not one of my strong points.]

On the horizon… the (not so distant) horizon

Poor are the most charitable.

The last few weeks I’ve been fundraising for Project Exploration with increasing intensity. Some of it is my regular fundraising work that happens in late spring: reaching out to people who have given in the past but haven’t given yet this year, following up with people who have asked to be kept abreast of our programs, reaching out to people to begin a conversation about next year. Some of the calls I’m making are more unusual – I’m going back to people who have already given to ask for special help; to ask for another donation to help us protect our summer programs.

We have a significant shortfall for the year and some funding we’ve been counting on from individuals and foundations evaporated late in the game. One program, our All Girls Expedition, has been hit hard and we’re being faced with possibly bringing fewer girls into the field. A real shame – especially because we know our summer field programs are the most transformative for our students of all the experiences we can offer them.

Sometimes I think about fundraising as being on a ship heading towards the horizon. The horizon is, loosely defined, the seeming intersection between the earth and the sky. It’s a good metaphor for me – simultaneously romantic and scientific. When we’re hard up for money the horizon is so far away; each time someone gives a gift to Project Exploration the horizon nears. But here’s the thing that I am consistently amazed by: people’s generosity, and most of all generosity of people who have the least, financially speaking anyways.

In the last few days I was given a number of checks and and some bills from friends and neighbors totalling nearly $500. These donations are from people who are nurses and teachers, city workers, college students, retirees, and even former Project Exploration students. They gave in honor of my daughter’s fifth birthday the generosity was overwhelming and extremely humbling. These gifts for Project Exploration made me feel like I was at the edge of the world.

As I started on my computer to read the news early this morning I found such generosity may be par for the course. It turns out folks in the lowest financial bracket are, on average, the most generous in their giving; they keep the horizon close. According to a recent article, “people in the bottom 20 percent of the population in terms of wealth tend to give more than their capacity to give, while those in the next two-fifths give at capacity.”

I’m not sure why those with the least give the most – it certainly isn’t because their lives are any less complicated or busy than people who are more well off. Perhaps it has to do with the intersection between earth and sky… and wanting to keep it close.

Later this morning I’ll head back into the office buyoed up to make new calls, to share good stories about students and their lives, to ask for help, and to try, through Project Exploration, to make it increasingly likely that students like ours will have a chance to experience the wonders of discovery first hand alongside scientists who are as excited as they are to explore the world. 

Today the horizon is near.

On any given day

 

Los Angeles math students do battle.

Los Angeles math students do battle.

On any given day there is a story about science in the news and, increasingly science education. I really love stories about kids doing science or learning that math can be fun because they’re doing something real – building something, travelling, getting together with scientists and mathematicians and getting a new perspective on the world. Take today for example. Here are the first two stories featured in my morning Google science education news search:

Robotics program piques students’ interest in science

Lamar University offers free science camp to cure summertime blues  

Don’t these programs sound pretty fun? In the first you get to build robots, use computers and compete against another class that did the same things as you. In the second program you get to live on a college campus and do hands-on labs for the summer. The first program is based at a school and incorporated into the formal day; the other takes place in the summer on a university. Both are free. (FREE!) The first program is open to everyone in the class; the other is competitive based on academics. Both programs are valued in terms of the urgent shortage of engineers, scientists and mathematicians, a landscape which is increasingly coming under question for its veracity.  

And herein is my dilemma. I love these stories but the more I see them ore I get frustrated. What would it take to make these kinds of experiences the norm rather than the exception? Can’t we offer a program that engages students with science and math through fun, meaningful work – that didn’t imply the purpose was to be a scientist? We don’t expect every student who takes a literature class to be a writer, though we hope that they do learn how to write and read. Why does a kid who learns science effectively have to be a potential scientist? I WANT kids to have access to jobs in science if they want them and certainly it’s much less likely a kid will consider a career in science unless they are interested in science and have the skills to do science.

But stories like the ones in today’s headlines always make me wonder – can’t we have an education system in which literacy and fluency in science was expected rather than the exception? What would it take for science to really be “for all,” rather than just some? NOT because of national competitiveness (from which flows the status quo in science education of targeting academically gifted students) but because being able to think rationally and evaluate information is a skill as necessary as reading and writing in a democratic society.

 The scientist in me knows that simply educating academically elite students in the interests of the science workforce pipeline won’t increase the number of students pursuing science – this model isn’t working. Neither is a model whereby funders fund short term, one shot programs which may pique a student’s interest in science but leaves them with nowhere to go to continue that pursuit. (I think there are other ways to work on this issue, but that will be for another post).

 Sustained, in- and out-of-school alliances that get students interested in science through hands-on meaningful activities alongside adults who are passionate about the world may be possible. But it will require us to make science programs like the ones described in today’s news available to all students, regardless of academic achievement, on every given day.

Meanwhile, these fifth kids from LA, give us a picture of what this alternative education reality could look like. 

Whenever there’s trouble, we’re there on the double…(The post that launched the blog)

It’s only fitting that I launch this site by hearkening back to the Bloodhound Gang — some of you know… think back… 3…2…1 CONTACT!

By high school I had been tracked into dummy science and yet I LOVED this show. My blog, “Schooling Science” is, in part, about this kind of disconnect in schools, and out of schools, between science and kids. My own experience being tracked out of science, that’s a post for another day. Meanwhile, sit back, relax, and travel with me down memory lane to a time and place where anyone could be a scientist… Just stay cool.