AAAS Evaluates Strategies to Spark Underrepresented Students’ Interest in Science

Middle-school teachers Carol Rentas, Mary Joyner, and Michael Kelley folded cardboard strips into rectangles to build a miniature bridge during a recent AAAS workshop. Two other teachers, Shavonne Brown and Desirée Heyliger, stabilized their X-shaped bridge with straws. A third team, John Anthony and Ericka Jeter, built a six-legged frame for their model bridge.

The construction project—which prompted teachers to explore technical engineering concepts such as “safety factors” and “loads” as well as the roles of architects versus engineers and designers—was part of a multi-faceted, three-year effort by AAAS to assess strategies for improving science teaching and learning.

In particular, “a key goal of the program is to understand what it takes to get underrepresented students to succeed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” AAAS Program Director Joan Abdallah explained.

Abdallah and her colleagues are offering an array of classroom, after-school, and summer activities for teachers and students from public, private, and charter schools in Washington, D.C. The program will serve up to 2000 students as well as teachers, counselors and parents from predominantly underrepresented, low-income schools in the District.

Building a bridge. Shavonne Brown (left) and Desiree Heyliger use a straw to stabilize their model bridge as they experiment with a science, technology and engineering curriculum before introducing it to their students.

Building a bridge. Shavonne Brown (left) and Desiree Heyliger use a straw to stabilize their model bridge as they experiment with a science, technology and engineering curriculum before introducing it to their students.

AAAS staff members are collaborating with the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. An independent assessment of outcomes, especially to determine the effectiveness of different intervention strategies, will be completed next year by Campbell-Kibler Associates, Inc.

“AAAS wanted to investigate what suite of activities might effectively increase students’ knowledge about science, engineering, and technology,” Abdallah explained. “We are exploring how changes to in-school curriculum might be helpful, and also how after-school activities for children and summer workshops for teachers may affect outcomes.”

The AAAS initiative comes at a time of continuing concern about the quality of science instruction in U.S. schools and a push for national science standards.

The AAAS initiative, dubbed GET SET, for Global Education for Tomorrow in Science, Engineering and Technology, is being supported by nearly $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The effort is part of an agency program called ITEST —Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers—which was established to help boost the future U.S. science and technology workforce.

Get ready with GET SET. Teachers Ericka Jeter and John Anthony work on the frame for their model bridge during a recent workshop for science and mathematics teachers from 10 public, private and charter schools in Washington, D.C.

Get ready with GET SET. Teachers Ericka Jeter and John Anthony work on the frame for their model bridge during a recent workshop for science and mathematics teachers from 10 public, private and charter schools in Washington, D.C.

A first year of the AAAS program focused on energy transformation and renewable energy—a real-world issue intended to spark students’ interest in science. For instance, students and teachers explored engineering design technologies related to biomass, water, geothermal, wind, and solar energy. Teacher Michael Kelley reported that his middle-school students at Sacred Heart School began talking about careers in engineering after they correctly identified a mechanical problem within a solar power circuit.

During the June 2010 workshop at AAAS, middle-school science and mathematics teachers received technical instruction from Victor Udoewa, an engineer and AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow. Udoewa guided teachers in exploring a curriculum called Engineering the Future: Science, Technology, and the Design Process, developed by the Museum of Science, Boston. (The AAAS program also makes use of a second curriculum, Investigating and Questioning Our World of Science and Technology, which was developed with NSF support at the University of Michigan.)

Udoewa’s workshop participants discussed science and engineering careers, practiced the bridge-building exercise, and received a few practical classroom tips from Abdallah, a former principal and science supervisor.

“Set up your supplies in advance,” Abdallah advised as AAAS Program Associate Neela Khin prepared for the bridge exercise by arranging strips of cardboard, straws and tape on a table. “That way, each student can quickly collect one set of supplies and you can focus on teaching.”

A broader goal of the AAAS effort is to introduce science careers to teachers and students while also measuring the effectiveness of various intervention strategies, said Shirley Malcom, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. “We are pursuing research questions related to the duration and intensity of interventions,” she reported. “We also wanted to work with role models as a way to broaden thinking about science career options.”

For example, teacher Mary Joyner from St. Frances Xavier Catholic School invited NASA scientist Gregory S. Jenkins to address her students as part of the AAAS program. “He grew up in southeast D.C. and he was telling them about his career,” Joyner said. “That had a real impact on my students.”

Michael Kelley’s students watched role models in action when they presented their GET SET science projects alongside undergraduate and graduate students for Earth Day, in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exhibit on the National Mall. “My students were so impressed to be there with the older students!” Kelley recalled. “I told them, `Guess what, guys? Someday, that could be you!’ It was a real confidence booster for them.”

Kelley’s students built model wind turbines as part of a GET SET after-school program called the AAAS Spark Club, based on the popular AAAS Kinetic City program, a collection of science experiments, games and projects.

In the Spark Club, hands-on, after-school activities introduced middle-school students to energy and sustainability topics such as solar and wind power, reported AAAS Senior Project Director Bob Hirshon. The students built tabletop systems and then worked on large-scale systems, too. (Read more about their Earth Day presentations.)

Engineering the future. Teachers Mary Joyner (left), Michael Kelley, and Carol Rentas form a rectangular base for a model bridge as they learn about Engineering the Future: Science, Technology, and the Design Process, a curriculum developed by the Museum of Science, Boston.

Engineering the future. Teachers Mary Joyner (left), Michael Kelley, and Carol Rentas form a rectangular base for a model bridge as they learn about Engineering the Future: Science, Technology, and the Design Process, a curriculum developed by the Museum of Science, Boston.

“I wanted the students to see that they were demonstrating activities that real engineers do in real-world settings,” Hirshon explained. “So they learned about their future career options as well as the technology.”

Real-world applications can help to make science more relevant to teenagers, said Carol Rentas, who teaches at Saint Anselm’s Abbey School. She said that her students can’t always recognize “how science and technology fits into their lives and careers” unless classroom content is tied to practical concerns. During the AAAS workshop, her bridge-building team took a “what if?” approach to the design process. Next year, Rentas will introduce the exercise to her students, too.

When asked how the teachers were doing with their construction project, instructor Victor Udoewa smiled. “Most of them probably should be making smaller, more distributed bridges,” he said. “But that’s the type of learning they need to do before they can feel confident in presenting these exercises to their students.”

Learn more about the GET SET initiative from AAAS and the U.S. National Science Foundation.