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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Grad Students Teach Middle Schoolers to Think Like Scientists

What makes a good scientist? It’s not only research skills. Scientists also need to communicate their findings and ideas to their colleagues. If they can explain complicated, important concepts to regular folks, that’s even better.

Turning scientists into crystal clear communicators is a goal of the program run by Robert Chen of the Environmental Coastal and Ocean Sciences Department (ECOS). Now in its second year, the National Science Foundation grant, called the Watershed Integration Science Partnership (WISP), puts graduate students into Boston area public schools to teach science to 12, 13, and 14 year olds.

The 15 UMass Boston grad students chosen for this year’s cycle prepared for the challenge by participating in a weeklong workshop in June highlighted classroom techniques that “construct understanding” of scientific principles.

“We want sixth graders to act as scientists,” says Hannah Sevian, professor of science education and WISP co-investigator.

Most lessons mimic the inquiry method that scientists use. As a warm-up for the classroom simulations, Sevian asks each fellow to “describe something you learned in your education as a scientist that sticks in your mind because you figured it out yourself.”

Jamie Sneeringer, Master of Science (M.S.) biology student, remembers an experiment where she had to record the changes in the moon. “Of course I knew it, but actually recording made it stick in my head,” she says.

Joe Smith’s learning moment came while taking sediment core samples in the Chesapeake Bay. “They’re one and a half meters. I decided to freeze one for the trip back to Boston. But when water freezes it expands, so the whole core was blown. My brain didn’t register it until I screwed up as a scientist,” he recalls.

“I think we all have that moment. You understand, but you don’t make the connection until you do it. Then you feel stupid,” says Mark Shailer, M.S. ECOS candidate.

Sevian links the fellows’ insights to their role as teachers. “Learning is a vulnerable moment for kids, too, especially in middle school. Try to remember that when you’re doing lesson plans,” she says. Such discussions will continue all year, as fellows meet with one another weekly. Working alongside the regular teachers, fellows will teach ten hours per week, using a watershed curriculum that’s linked to state science standards.

Fellows are paid about $30,000 and the master’s teachers will receive stipends and funds for materials. Some fellows find the commitment diverts them from their research, says new fellow Anna Santos, a graduate student in biology. But she is eager.

“I think educating people about science is important, especially for children. This interests me,” she says, although like most other fellows she doesn’t expect to become a middle school teacher after graduation. “My focus is aquatic issues, and I’ll most likely be involved in academics. The purpose is to enable us to communicate science better to the general public.”

Teaching also benefits the fellows’ research. “If fellows can explain their research to sixth graders, then they really know it,” says Chen. Seeing peers’ observations in the workshops is also mind-expanding.

After a group exercise to deduce five mystery materials stewing in test tubes, fellow Jason Bianchini, Ph.D. candidate in green chemistry, noticed his teammates’ approaches to problem solving. “It’s something I forget being in a lab for years by myself. In the group I hear other variations, and they are legit,” he said.