GK-12: When You Train Grad Students to Teach, You Get Better Communicators and Better Classes

Nathan Rabideaux peers into the small plastic cups filled with water and topped with the pink slick of an oil additive. It’s meant to simulate an oil spill like the one in the Gulf of Mexico last year, and his high school students are using sand, hay, kitty litter, vermiculite, absorption pads, and a chemical dispersant to see how each affects the floating toxin.

“We assigned a value to each material so they could understand the economics behind the clean-up as well,” explains the Ph.D candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “The main goal was to show if something like this were to happen again, what approach could be taken initially rather than the guesswork that was involved with the spill. They tried to make it the most economic, fastest, least environmentally harmful clean up as possible.”

You’re not going to grab a kid’s attention with just lectures and homework assignments, says Rabideaux. The more hands-on, the more practical, the more relevant to their lives you make a project, the more likely it is to engage students.

Cindy Sargent and Nathan Rabideaux
[Photo for AAAS by Bob Roehr]

Rabideaux is not in the classroom today; it’s a Saturday and he’s at a poster that lays out his work at what might be the last conference of the Graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Fellows in K-12 Education, better known as GK-12. He is sharing his approach and learning how other grad students have found ways to communicate the stripped-down principles of their research with school kids.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the GK-12 program in 1999. Its current $56 million budget supports fellowships and training for STEM graduate students to improve their communications and teaching skills through interactions with teachers and students in K-12 classrooms, while providing STEM content and instruction in the schools. Often the focus is on at-risk and disadvantaged student populations.

Competition for the multi-year, non-renewable grants is intense. A proposal typically must be refined and submitted several times before winning the brass ring of funding. To date, 181 universities, 6,278 public schools (the majority low income), 10,401 graduate fellows, 11,801 teachers, and 634,098 K-12 students have participated in the program.

The conference, held 11-13 March in Washington, D.C., was organized by AAAS Education and Human Resources.

Rabideaux wasn’t always on an academic track. He dropped out of high school and says he “sampled a lot of different jobs” before eventually heading to college. Before graduating he was offered a lucrative job on an oil platform as a deep-water technical diver but passed on the bucks to get his degree and pursue graduate studies.

His students thought he was crazy to pass up that paycheck, but “there is a lot more to being happy in life than just money,” he says. “You have got to find something that you’re interested in.” Right now that is research and academia.

Cindy Sargent, his classroom teaching partner and mentor, says there is a common thread running between the oil slick demonstration and Rabideaux’s personal story. It is the trade-offs between short- and long-term fixes for the problems in our lives.

“Sometimes you don’t take the quick way out,” Sargent says. “If you plan and think long-term, you will get to another place.” She says it is crucial for kids to see that in today’s world of instant gratification.

The hands-on approach also teaches students to think logically in solving problems, rather than simply learn facts from a textbook. It is a rigor and skill set that transfers to a lot more in life than just the classroom, says Sargent.

James H. Lightbourne, director of NSF’s Division of Graduate Education, acknowledged at the opening session of the conference that a systematic evaluation by Abt Associates gave the GK-12 program generally high marks. However, NSF recently decided to end the program. He said lessons learned from GK-12 would be “refocused and reformulated, and then embedded within a range of NSF-funded programs and activities.” Existing multi-year obligations will be fulfilled, pending availability of funds.

Many in the audience already knew of the decision and sported large green buttons reading “Save GK-12.” One of the leaders of the effort to reverse the decision is Vikram Kapila, the principal investigator of the GK-12 program at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, who later received an award for generating substantial media coverage of the program.

“I’m having a little bit of cognitive dissonance,” he told Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF assistant director for Education and Human Resources, from the audience, because federal officials have been going around the country for the last two years saying that we need to get kids excited about science, math, engineering, and technology. “There is one program in the federal government at NSF that does exactly that thing. And that program has now been offered as a sacrificial lamb.” Loud applause and hoots of support from the audience reinforced his words.

Daryl Chubin, a former NSF division director now at AAAS, has seen similar changes in the past. Programs are terminated, consolidated, or renamed to keep the portfolio fresh, regardless of their performance and despite glowing evaluations. The community that the program helps to create is left to fend for itself, its positive legacy continuing for years, unmeasured by the now-departed sponsor.

Betty Calinger, AAAS program manager for the GK-12 project since 2002, says that while the GK-12 program may be ending as an NSF-supported activity, the goal of training STEM professionals to become clear, accurate communicators about their disciplines continues to grow in importance with each passing day.

Efforts to enhance those skills will continue through graduate courses that include outreach components and university and industry support for fellowships similar to those in GK-12. In the coming months, AAAS’s Education and Human Resources division will focus on new ways to implement the good ideas from GK-12 and maintain the network of alumni and universities created through the program.

Another notable project is Georgia Southern University’s Molecular Biology Initiative. Its research focus is genetics and its GK-12 partnership is with two rural middle and high schools in southern Georgia.

Graduate student Derek Tucker is studying gene flow and inbreeding in the Florida scrub lizard. The small range of the animals and patterns of logging activity in the Ocala National Forest have created isolated population “islands” that are an ideal laboratory.

Distance makes it impractical to directly involve students in the research so he devised a case-study approach—who kidnapped Justin Bieber?—loosely based on the popular CSI television franchise. The students have to compare fictitious DNA segments of Bieber’s girlfriend Selena Gomez, mentor Usher, and Charlie Sheen with a sample found on the ransom note.

Through the process, they learn about DNA structure, replication, transcription, and the principles of genetic translocation that are key to his research, says Tucker.

The lizard’s dinner is the subject matter for another colleague. Chris Evett’s research subject is fruit flies, specifically the impact of bacteria on the modulation of gene expression in drosophila. He feels that too often high school genetics is taught from a pre-1950s perspective. He adds: “Nobody cares about peas except Czech monks.”

He says a good, quick way for students to get a hands-on sense of the transmission of genetic traits is by crossbreeding wild type and sepia mutant drosophila. It introduces them to standard techniques and tools including gel electrophoresis and polymerase chain reaction (PCR). A portable PCR machine allows the students to carry out every step of the process in their classroom.

Initial assessment of the Georgia Southern program has shown a significant increase in student knowledge as measured by pre and post program testing. The increase was greatest among those who started with the lowest baseline knowledge—a common outcome with a mature GK-12 project—which suggests they are reaching their intended target populations of those most in need of science education.


Learn more about the GK-12 program.