STEM Outreach: PERFECT combination

  • PERFECT team
    PERFECT team  VIMS grad student Samuel Lake shows off his York River Watershed board game with his partner teacher, Kristin Kelley, a science instructor at York High School. The NSF-funded GK-12 program puts Lake and other scientists in classrooms of middle schools and high schools regularly. Kelley's class has shown a marked increase in SOL passage rates since entering the program.   Photo by Carol Hopper Brill
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Editor's note:  This is one of a series of stories from Ideation magazine on the various STEM-outreach initiatives at William & Mary, programs that reach out beyond the walls of campus to increase understanding and appreciation of the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math. The full series of stories is available here.

Theresa Davenport was having some trouble with a football player.

stemDavenport was explaining to a biology class at Grafton High School about some of the problems that can stem from seawater that is low in oxygen. The football player, “who was as sweet as he could be,” she says, was having a hard time understanding how water gets to be low in oxygen in the first place.

“He kept asking me ‘But where does the oxygen go?’” she said. After a few minutes Davenport understood the problem.

“He didn’t understand that oxygen is dissolved in water,” she said. “It finally hit me that he was picturing the water molecules splitting apart and then organisms using that oxygen—the O in H2O. He was mixing up his chemical concepts, not his biological concepts.”

Once she understood the problem, it only took Davenport, a master’s student in biological science at VIMS, a minute to explain the concept of dissolved aquatic oxygen and how it differs from molecular oxygen. The football player got it.

Opportunities for mutual revelations

Such mutual revelations between student and teacher are frequent in the science classes that participate in the GK-12 PERFECT program at VIMS. This STEM-outreach initiative, supported by the National Science Foundation, partners graduate students from VIMS with local science teachers.

Kam Tang, associate professor of marine science at VIMS and director of the program, says the GK-12 program addresses a number of needs from the VIMS point of view. For one thing, he says, the NSF funding provides some additional financial support for VIMS master’s and Ph.D. students. Secondly, the program gives the VIMS students some classroom teaching experience, an opportunity that’s somewhat rare in the predominantly graduate-level programs of William & Mary’s marine science school.

“I plan to teach in the future, hopefully at the undergraduate level,” said Samuel Lake, a Ph.D. student in biological science who is in his second year of a GK-12 fellowship at York High School. “I’m getting ideas on ways I can present different things and do activities and make things hands-on that you would normally have to do in a lecture setting.”

Lake, Davenport and the other GK-12 fellows typically spend a full day twice a week at their partner schools. In accordance with the program’s title behind the PERFECT acronym—Partnership between Educators and Researchers for Enhancing Classroom Teaching—the fellows forge important links between William & Mary/VIMS and the K-12 community,

“VIMS people have been doing that on and off in different capacities but I think the GK 12 intensifies or increases interactions with the local K12 community,” Tang said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Base pairs: One scientist, one teacher

The number of GK-12 fellows varies between eight and 12 each year. Vicki Clark, one of the GK-12 project managers, explains that in 2012, there are GK-12 partnerships with five schools, three high schools and two middle schools. Each fellow is paired with a teacher. A VIMS GK-12 fellow may find him- or herself teaching anything from introductory earth science to chemistry, biology and sometimes even marine science. The fellows and their partner teachers start their collaboration in the summer.

“Sometimes during the summer, the teachers are working with the grad students on their research projects here at VIMS with and sometimes the graduate students are at the school working with the teachers to get ready for the school year,” Clark explained.

The summer preparation also includes what Clark describes as a “boot camp” on science education methods, conducted by herself and fellow GK-12 program manager and “den mother” Carol Hopper Brill, a marine education specialist at VIMS.

“We discuss a little bit about how students learn and the different ways the fellows can prepare lessons and different learning strategies and protocols you need to understand a little bit about before you get started in the classroom,” Clark said. “But most of the experience is gained on the job in the classroom and in the field.”

No dumbing-down, even when they cry

Christie Pondell got some unexpected experience when she made a couple of students cry. It was early in her fellowship at Booker T. Washington Middle School in Newport News, a marine-science magnet school. Pondell, a Ph.D. student in the VIMS physical science department, was teaching a chemistry lesson to a class of eighth graders. The boys sitting up front were getting it, Pondell said, but tears erupted when she called on a couple of girls in the back of the room.

“It was chemical bonding and making ions and—well, valence electrons can be scary,” she said. “But, I was dumbfounded. I said to myself, OK, we’re going to have to explain this a different way. Not dumb down the science, but just find a different way to explain it.”

Pondell invited the girls to come in during lunch and they went over the material again. By drawing circles to show the electrons’ positions in the outer orbital shell, Pondell found a different way to explain the science, while the eighth graders, tearful no longer, understood how valence electrons combine with the electrons of other atoms to form chemical bonds.

The GK-12 program is in its third year of five at VIMS and has recorded some impressive results. The program tracks the attitudes and degrees of understanding of the students toward science and scientists. In a survey at the beginning of the course, few of the students say they want to become scientists. Although, as Davenport points out, many of them really did.

“So many of them were putting ‘I want to be a doctor,’ ‘I want to be a forensic crime scene investigator,’ ‘I want to be a vet,’ yet they were putting ‘No, I don’t want to be a scientist’,” she said. “They were missing that connection—that some of these things that they think are really interesting are science.”

Success stories

Clark says evaluations of the GK-12 experiences show that the students attain a more realistic understanding of science and a better, more positive view of scientists and what they do.

The GK-12 programs have other success stories to tell as well. Kristin Kelley, a science teacher at York High School, has been participating in the GK-12 programs for three years, working with Sam Lake for the past two. Lake says Kelley’s earth science students logged a 99 percent passage rate on the most recent of Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOL) tests—up from a passage rate that wavered between 60 and 70 percent.

“She only had one kid fail. I think that’s an amazing feat,” Lake said. “I think part of it is that she’s a good teacher. I think another part of it is the fact that for the last three years, she and a GK-12 a fellow have been working together to not only teach the material but to redesign the course in different ways and make it better and more efficient for the students.”