Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis

STEM Fellows: Science Grad Students Promote Science to Local Students

Release Date: 
Jun 4 2012

IUPUI graduate student Lindsay Hammack teaches lab methods to Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School students. / Charlie Nye / The Star

The School of Science and the GK-12 program place graduate students in STEM classrooms to help excite students about the possibilities of science.

The following article by Shari Rudavsky appeared in the June 4, 2012, edition of The Indianapolis Star.

When most graduate students lead a class, they teach college students. Not Lindsay Hammack. For the past year, the IUPUI graduate student has spent at least 10 hours a week in a biology class at Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School.

Working alongside teacher Ma'at Lands, Hammack gives lectures. She answers questions. She grades exams. She offers extra help to those who need it. And on a recent afternoon, she led the students through the first experiment she did as a biology graduate student, which involved learning how to add DNA to yeast.

The 26-year-old has no intention of becoming a high school teacher. She is participating in a national program that puts graduate students in science, technology, engineering and medicine into science classrooms from elementary to high school. The goal isn't to develop teachers. Rather, it's to interest young students in a career in science.

"She makes research seem more fun," said Mohamed Abedelmalik, 15, an Attucks freshman. "Sometimes I ask detailed questions, and she will answer on the spot with confidence. If you want to learn more in-depth, she can go on and on."

The National Science Foundation's Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program has placed more than 50 Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis School of Science graduate students into area schools over five years. Nationally, the $57 million program has more than 180 universities participating.

Study after study has shown that the United States lags other countries when it comes to science education. Failing to teach basic science skills will hinder the country's ability to compete in these fields, experts fear. The GK-12 program offers a novel approach to improving science education.

Many of the schools involved are rural or urban. In the Indianapolis area, all five schools -- Attucks, Pike High School, Southport High School, Warren Central High School and Westlane Middle School -- have a majority of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

But this is the program's penultimate year. The National Science Foundation has decided to discontinue it next spring.

For Lands, the graduate student presence in her classroom has made a world of difference. After a year with Hammack, the teacher said she can't imagine what it will be like to teach without a GK-12 fellow.

"The resources have been invaluable," Lands said of Hammack. "It's not only the research that she can bring in, but also her experience."

The National Science Foundation is ending the program after reassessing its priorities and budget, said Sonia Ortega, program director.

"We don't support anything forever. . . . That's how we do business."

Around the country, a group of scientists -- a profession not known for rabble-rousing -- has been trying to persuade the science foundation to reconsider.

No other program like this one exists, said Pat Marsteller, director of the Emory College Center for Science Education.

"The more I think about it, this is one of the best programs that NSF has ever had," Marsteller said. "It gets the students excited about science and much more involved with the process than just memorizing the facts."

At Southport High School, GK-12 fellows bring a different dimension to the classroom, Principal Barbara Brouwer said. Unlike student teachers who are in the classroom for a brief period, the GK-12 fellows stay the whole year. And unlike other fellows who are training to enter elementary or secondary education, most GK-12 fellows plan to work in a research university.

If the program disbands as planned, Southport and other schools will lose that perspective as well as much-needed extra help, Brouwer said.

"They're a second set of eyes and a second teaching style brain in the classroom to reach out and touch even more students," she said. "It's not just beneficial for the kids. It's beneficial to the teacher, as well."

Many of the universities that have participated in the program are trying to find ways to keep it alive once the NSF money evaporates. Finding money, however, is not easy.

Some say a less expensive answer lies in having graduate students volunteer in classrooms. But that won't accomplish what this program has, Marsteller said.

"A one-time visit is not the same as a transformational involvement where the grad students are there one day a week or more and inspiring young people to understand that they can be scientists, too," she said.

The program has been highly competitive. The fellowship comes with a $30,000 stipend, more generous than most graduate-student funding.

Students spend at least 10 hours a week for a year in the schools, though many say they find themselves spending much more time. The idea isn't to encourage career shifts for the graduate students, but for them to light sparks in the precollege set.

"Really, that's what NSF wanted," said Kathleen Marrs, associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Science at IUPUI. "They wanted more scientists to go out and tell the kids how exciting science was, not to become teachers but to get the kids interested in science."

The graduate students' perspectives spill over into the assignments they devise, as Stacey Matlock, a physics teacher at Southport High School, discovered in her Advanced Placement class this year.

Luis Palacio, the fellow she works with, led the students through a project in which they built a car out of a rat trap, having them approach it as a graduate student would.

"There were all these little steps he had the kids do, which I would not have done," she said.

Palacio, 36, liberally sprinkles reminders of his graduate student status throughout his lectures. A slide show presentation includes a picture of him, more casually dressed, in the lab. He shares tips every graduate student knows, such as the fact that the nuclear hazard symbol means stay away. And he brings in the equipment that he uses in his own research to show the students what he does.

He does have one foible: using words much more advanced than students' vocabulary, said Clemencia Tello, 18, a senior.

"He's learning that our vernacular is not as big as what he's used to."

At Attucks, Hammack has offered more than an infusion of real-world science. She is another educated body. And in a crowded classroom, every body matters.

"It's kind of like co-teaching," Lands said.

That's not lost on the students. Many turn to the fellows for help when their teacher is tied up elsewhere.

"Any time I don't know something about the questions, she tries to lead me to the answer," said Donté Reed, 14, an Attucks eighth-grader. "Two heads are better than one."

But once the bell rings at the end of the day, it's clear that Hammack is not an Attucks teacher. She hastens back to her IUPUI lab.

Science struggles

The U.S., by many measures, is not a global leader in how well it prepares students in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and medicine:

»Slightly more than one-third of fourth-graders scored at or above a proficient level in science, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress. That slipped to 30 percent in eighth grade and 21 percent in 12th grade.

»The U.S. ranked 23rd out of 65 countries in science education, according to a 2010 Program for International Student Assessment report.

»A ranking by the World Economic Forum in 2009 put the United States 48th out of 133 countries for its quality of math and science instruction.

»A 2010 National Academies report found that the United States ranked 27th out of 29 wealthy countries in the proportion of college students who have science and engineering degrees.