Graduate Students Gain Essential Skills While Showing Grade-Schoolers What It’s Like to be a Researcher

Bugs in candy, birds colliding with planes and the movement of bacteria—these may not sound like a typical mathematics curriculum. But for some seventh-graders in Brooklyn, New York, these are routine lessons in math class.

Seventh-grade mathematics teacher Michael Seymour has teamed up with Andrew Mugler, a doctoral student in theoretical biophysics at Columbia University, to enliven lessons by infusing math class with real-life applications. The teacher-graduate student team is part of a National Science Foundation program, administered by AAAS, that pairs graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with kindergarten through high school teachers.


Megan Easterly (left), a third-year graduate student in analytical chemistry at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, works with students at Highland High School in Ault, Colorado. | Photo courtesy of Kate McDonnell

“It’s like having a living, breathing example of science at work in the classroom,” said Seymour, in his third year teaching at the Park Slope Education Complex at Middle School 88 in Brooklyn.


Seymour and Mugler will be among more than 600 attendees at the annual meeting of the Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program, known as GK-12. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, and AAAS organizes the conference, which runs 26-28 March in Washington, D.C. Graduate students, teachers and faculty members with GK-12 grants are expected to attend.“GK-12 activities help Fellows discover the connections between their research and the ‘real world’ and make them realize the meaning and larger purpose to conducting STEM research,” said Sonia Ortega, the senior GK-12 program officer at NSF. “The GK-12 program is aligned very well with what President Obama has been advocating to have scientists involved in STEM education.”


Andrew Mugler is a GK-12 Fellow working with a seventh grade mathematics teacher in Brooklyn, NY. Mugler is also a fifth year doctoral student in physics at Columbia University. | Image courtesy of Andrew Mugler

While the approaches and topics vary, all GK-12 collaborations expose students from elementary grades through high school to research and researchers. Mugler’s graduate studies, for example, involve modeling microbiological behavior. When his work is paired with the mandated curriculum, “we get a brand-new perspective,” Seymour said. “We see where the applications lie, what the members of the scientific community are doing with the information” learned in class.


More than 7000 graduate students, nearly 11,000 teachers and more than 550,000 K-12 students have been involved in the program since it began 11 years ago. The NSF has funded 200 GK-12 projects in 140 universities across the United States and in Puerto Rico since 1999.

Oversight of the program falls under AAAS’s Education and Human Resources programs. Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, and Betty Calinger, project manager for GK-12, help build the community of GK-12 projects by organizing meetings and updating the Web site developed by AAAS.

Under the program, graduate students selected as GK-12 Fellows spend about one day a week in the classroom, from elementary grades through high school. They teach and they help their partner teachers prepare or update lesson plans that include aspects of their STEM research. In return, the Fellows get a chance to hone their communication skills—and receive $30,000 yearly stipends plus up to $10,500 toward education expenses. The funds come through GK-12 grants awarded to colleges and universities by the NSF.

During a Saturday morning panel discussion at the GK-12 annual meeting, Seymour and Mugler will present ways they integrate research into mathematics lessons. “The annual GK-12 conference is a best-practices bazaar,” said Chubin. “In plenary, breakout, poster, and informal networking sessions, specific examples are shared of how teachers and GK-12 Fellows infuse research into classroom lesson plans. The conference, like the program, showcases the power of collaboration that propels young minds while renewing the STEM workforce with classroom-savvy Ph.D.s.”

For example, Seymour and Mugler got some help from microorganisms to teach the Pythagorean theorem. Instead of showing their class a bunch of triangles with two sides of known length and having the seventh-graders do standard calculations of the length of the third side, Seymour and Mugler showed their students a line with three right-angle turns in it. They told their students that a bacterium, moving with flagella, navigated that jagged path as it sought food. They asked their students, “How far would the bacterium have had to swim if it went in a straight line instead?”

The problem, which is among the activities described on Seymour and Mugler’s class blog, turned into a classroom discussion, said Mugler, a fifth-year physics doctoral student at Columbia University. Students soon saw that the jagged line and the straight line together defined a series of right triangles. “What I liked most about this lesson is that it involved just that one insight of drawing that line and viewing the problem as triangles rather than a jagged path,” Mugler said. The students “had to figure out how to answer the problem with their classmates. It made the lesson sink in, and it gave them more confidence.”

Kate McDonnell and Megan Easterly are another teacher-GK-12 Fellow pair who will share lesson ideas at the GK-12 annual meeting. McDonnell teaches physical science, including an introductory class for ninth-graders and chemistry and physics classes for 11th- and 12th-graders, at Highland High School in Ault, Colorado. Easterly is a third-year graduate student in analytical chemistry at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

“Having Megan around has really energized me,” McDonnell said. “My weakness is in chemistry, and she is an amazing resource for all my questions. She has helped me to strengthen my chemistry curriculum, especially with hands-on and exciting labs.”

In one such lab, a flame experiment well-known in chemistry classes, Easterly was particularly helpful. Easterly and McDonnell devised the experiment so that students soaked cotton swabs in different chemical solutions and then lit them on fire with a Bunsen burner. The flammable solutions then glow different colors, which is the basis for different colored fireworks. Easterly explained to the students how electrons gaining and losing energy cause different colors and how the electromagnetic spectrum works.

“She even got up in front of my students and did a dance to show how electrons can move,” McDonnell said. “This lesson was so successful with my juniors and seniors that we actually did it again with the freshmen. They absolutely loved this lab.”

Having explained the basics of glowing—or fluorescing—chemicals, Easterly took the lesson a step further and talked about her own work on developing an electrode that can detect the brain chemical nitric oxide in slices of brain tissue. She will present a poster at the GK-12 conference on this work.

“I really enjoy my research and I love presenting it to the class,” Easterly said. And, she said, her experiences in McDonnell’s classroom have helped her become a better communicator. When she started, Easterly said, she used “scientific words and was shocked when the students didn’t know” what she meant.

Easterly has adapted her vocabulary: She still uses the scientific words, but she explains them in a way that relate to the everyday lives of her students. Her improved communication skills reflect another value of NSF’s program. Beyond exposing children to research, the GK-12 program is intended to broaden communication skills in researchers. By discussing research with younger students and teachers, graduate students learn how to explain their science to a variety of audiences.

Former GK-12 Fellow Karen McNeal agreed that her fellowship helped her become a better science communicator. She did her fellowship in 2006 until 2007 through the GK-12 grant at Texas A&M University, where she obtained her doctorate in geology.


Former GK-12 Fellow Karen McNeal collects sediment in Corpus Christi Bay, Texas. McNeal is now an assistant professor in geosciences at Mississippi State University. | Image courtesy of Karen McNeal

 McNeal, now a faculty member in the department of geosciences at Mississippi State University, received a GK-12 grant of her own this spring. At the AAAS-organized GK-12 conference this weekend, McNeal will participate in a Saturday afternoon panel discussion of faculty members who are GK-12 alumni. They will describe how their fellowship experiences are helpful in their current jobs.


For McNeal, the experiences were an asset during her search for an academic job in 2007. She interviewed at a range of schools, from community colleges to top-rated research universities. “I knew I wanted to have a geoscience education component to what I do,” McNeal said. She looked for an academic job that would allow her to study geosciences education while maintaining her geosciences lab and field research.

For McNeal GK-12 helped her see different avenues for outreach and what NSF calls “broader impacts” of her research. She learned how to package skills developed through GK-12 in ways that would appeal to different academic institutions. For research-focused universities, she said, her teaching experiences demonstrated impacts on new audiences that are required in research grant proposals.

“I wanted to make an impact that went beyond the traditional research arena and into everyday lives,” she added, explaining why she applied for her own GK-12 grant. “I felt that the GK-12 project would allow me to continue to be a scientist in the research field that I enjoyed, but also allow my impact to go beyond the traditional science community.”

Obtaining participation and letters of commitment from frenzied school administrators can be the biggest challenge for GK-12 grant-seekers, and it was a challenge for McNeal as well. She sent emails and cold-called administrators at five school districts in her area, and she is pleased that three of them agreed to participate. After describing the program to them, McNeal asked what the schools needed. Administrators told her “our students need to know more about college. We need to present it in as many different ways as we can.”

And so, beginning this fall, McNeal and her 10 already selected GK-12 Fellows will become a presence in three rural middle and high schools near Mississippi State University, in northeast Mississippi. Apart from classroom lessons, they have field trips planned to Mississippi State University. GK-12 Fellows in McNeal’s program will show students the research labs they work in, and perhaps students will have the chance to do research in the labs.

The NSF GK-12 Annual Meeting begins today (26 March) in Washington, D.C. Poster sessions will showcase GK-12 activities and research throughout the three-day meeting. Sessions on Saturday will focus on discussions featuring teachers, project managers, and GK-12 Fellows about approaches to integrating research into the K-12 classroom to foster interest in and learning of science and mathematics. In the afternoon, teachers will go on field trips to area museums, and GK-12 program officers from NSF will be available to speak with faculty members seeking GK-12 funding.


Get details about the annual meeting of the NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity.