$12.5M: UMass Boston Receives Government Grant

Gintautas Dumcius

U. S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy and University of Massachusetts officials were on hand last week to announce the awarding of a $12.5 million grant to the Boston campus towards a science education program for Boston Public Schools.

“This is the largest grant ever awarded to a Boston campus,” Senator Kennedy said at a press conference.

The money, from the National Science Foundation (NSF), will go towards funding the Boston Science Partnership, a five-year science education reform program in collaboration with Northeastern University that will provide teacher training and course development for the Boston Public Schools.

The NSF was set up to recognize that the nation had to give encouragement in the areas of science, Kennedy said. “This is the time, this is the century, this is probably the millennium of scientific achievement and accomplishment at its best, and that is why today is so incredibly important,” he said.

With the grant secured, “there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Hannah Sevian, principal investigator for the project and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction.

Sevian will work with Professor Robert Chen of the Environmental Coastal and Ocean Sciences (ECOS) Department, and newly acquired Professor Arthur Eisenkraft, a senior research fellow. Chen credits Marilyn Decker, Boston Public Schools’ science director, with the idea.

Decker and Chen got to know one another through a project that put UMass graduate students in Boston schools. At the same time, Northeastern’s Dr. Christons Zahopoulos had retirees working side by side with students.

“So the combination of the to, it was a really interesting mix,” Decker said. “You’d have a retired surgeon helping sixth grade kids learn physiometry stuff, and then Bob’s grad students bringing their new perspectives as new scientists.”

A team was formed to write up a proposal for the project.

“Sometimes, when you write things like this, it’s not very collaborative. This was completely collaborative,” she said. “We’d e-mail each other in the middle of the night. I’d write something, Bob would write something, Hannah would write something, Christos would write something… it was a true collaboration in the writing.”

Decker credited Provost Paul Fonteyn for his support. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for UMass Boston to take the lead in science teaching,” Fonteyn said weeks earlier. “It’s what this university ought to be doing.””It’s a wonderful program,” said UMass President Jack Wilson, calling it a “quintessential UMass project.”

“We know nothing is more important to a child’s success than a qualified teacher,” said Chris Coxon, deputy superintendent of Boston Public Schools, which an estimated 64,000 students attend.

In Boston, only nine percent of eighth grade students score “proficient” in science, and over 80 percent of science teachers don’t meet the “highly qualified” teacher criteria in the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Kennedy, one of the architects of the legislation.

Wilson, a former physics professor who worked with Eisenkraft when they were at the American Institute of Physics in Washington D.C., said it was a “national problem,” citing an insufficient supply of qualified individuals.

The Boston Science Partnership has the goal of increasing proficiency by the time science becomes a requirement in the No Child Left Behind Act and when high school and middle school students take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) in 2008. It also hopes to train between 400 and 600 teachers in science education. Some will be new teachers coming into Boston, while others will already be living here.

“We have some ambitious standards,” Coxon said at the press conference held at the UMass President’s Office. “They are realistic of what our children need once they leave high school.”

“We know there is a need for better science teaching,” Chancellor J. Keith Motley said.

Both Motley and Wilson hailed the program as part of the Boston campus’s urban mission.

Northeastern University and UMB have “serious urban missions,” Motley said, noting that UMB is the city’s only public university, with a “special urban mission that extends beyond the campus and into the classrooms.”

“We often say Boston has an urban mission and this is part of the urban mission,” Wilson said.

“As President Wilson and Chancellor Motley know first-hand, UMass Boston has a long and distinguished record of service to the Boston Public Schools,” Kennedy said. “Its mission is to serve the city, and it takes that mission seriously.”

Through teacher training programs, UMass has trained talented new teachers and given veteran teachers the professional development they need to increase their teaching skills, Kennedy said, singling out other UMass programs like Upward Bound, Talent Search, Gear-Up, and Urban Scholars for introducing students to college campuses. “You’ve inspired them to persevere, and to do what it takes to go on to college and a brighter future for themselves. That’s why this science partnership grant is so important,” he said.

This wasn’t the first time Senator Kennedy presented a large check signed by “Uncle Sam” to the university. UMass Boston last received a $3 million grant in June 2003 from the NSF in order to establish a “regional center for advanced technology education.”