When I Grow Up, I Want to be...a Scientist

NSF grant sparks young students' interest in science

The clock struck three, a bell rang, and the halls of Truman Middle School filled with students streaming towards the exits. But seven students moved against the tide, making their way to Jessyca Flores' science lab, where they settled in for one more science lesson—not because they had to, but because they wanted to.

Flores, fellow science teacher Tamara Werner, and Melisa Greenberg, a UNM graduate student, helped the group of students conduct experiments using color and light. They spun color wheels on string to simulate white light, fashioned homemade lasers from flashlights, foil and CDs, and debated why the ocean and sky look blue.

It was all part of Truman's After School Photonics Club. "The different experiments are really interesting and they make science fun," says seventh-grader and club member Adam Martinez. The club is made possible by a National Science Foundation (NSF) GK-12 Grant awarded to the University of New Mexico in the spring of 2004. NSF created the three-year, $1.8 million grant to enrich the learning experience for K-12 students and to spark an interest in engineering, science and math that might inspire students to consider careers in these areas. The grant emphasizes optics and photonics. UNM is one of more than 50 universities around the country participating in the program.

Teaching Tomorrow's Scientists Today

"Industry projections reveal that we're not producing enough engineers and scientists. There are many reasons, but one of them is that students aren't getting interested in science at an early age," says Charles Fleddermann, professor and associate dean of the School of Engineering. Fleddermann is the principal investigator on the grant and he manages the program.

To spark that early interest, the GK-12 grant funds fellowships so that engineering and science graduate students can serve as resources for science and math teachers in the public schools. This year eight fellows from UNM are working on Albuquerque’s far west side in a group of schools that includes several elementary and middle schools and one high school. The area is ideal because the schools feed into West Mesa High School, which already has an optics academy. "This way there’s a pipeline of elementary school kids who are interested in science that goes to the high school and then ultimately, we hope, to UNM when they graduate," says Mary Jo Daniel, a liaison from Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) who helps manage the program.

Daniel conducted a week-long training session last summer to familiarize the fellows with the classrooms and help them understand how to relate to kids of different ages. Then the fellows worked with teachers at their assigned schools to create age-appropriate programs and schedules for the students. "The program needed to be very flexible because each school has different needs," explains Daniel. Depending on the school and the weekday, the GK-12 fellows can be found planning curriculum sessions, conducting experiments in class, doing research for teachers, helping students with their science fair projects.

A Win-Win-Win Situation

But it's not just the kids that are learning. GK-12 provides valuable continuing education for teachers too. The program expands their depth of knowledge, specifically in optics and photonics, and gives teachers more tools and experiments to use in class. In fact, the fellows are preparing kits with experiments and educational materials that teachers can use and then pass on to other educators who aren't directly involved in the program.

It's also an education for the fellows. They're learning how to relate to kids and share their knowledge. Greenberg, who is working towards her masters degree in optical science, sees the program as a way to make a difference. "I wanted to do this because I love kids, and especially because I'm a woman and wanted to show young girls that they can grow up to be scientists," says Greenberg.

Steven Green, the fellow assigned to Adams Middle School, says that teaching kids enhances his research at UNM. "Education and learning are two sides of the same coin. You have to learn about something to teach it, so this benefits me and what I'm learning myself," notes Green.

Fleddermann says that UNM has a lot to gain from participating in the program as well. "Many of our students come out of APS. A better relationship with the local school district is likely to get us more students that are better prepared. I'm hoping that a lot of these students will remember that there was this person at UNM who was in their class when they were in eighth grade and that he or she was really cool and taught them a lot about science. I hope they'll think ‘I want to be like that and go to UNM'."

Will the plan work? A process is in place to evaluate the results of GK-12. Students from UNM's College of Education have developed an assessment tool that measures students' attitudes toward science at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year. Judging by the smiles and bright eyes in the After School Photonics Club, GK-12 is already working its magic. Samantha Smith, a seventh-grader in the club offers confirmation. "I really like science. And there are not that many women in science, so I think I might become a scientist in the future."