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“I love this grant and I love the idea behind it” said Carmen Latterell, associate professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the principal investigator for the program. “There’s a national crisis in math and science because people don’t want to major in these areas anymore.” The project seeks to break down the old stereotype that surrounds math and science professionals. “We still carry an image today that mathematicians and scientists don’t have social lives,” Latterell said. “This projects is trying to break that.”
One way to alleviate this image problem is introducing K-12 students to current graduate students, who can offer them a fresh image of the people working in the field, and show them it is not all lab coats and number crunching.
Lindsey Dietz, a UMD graduate student studying mathematics, was pleased with the connection she made with her students at Harbor City International School. “We are role models to them. The students saw teachers closer to their age and were able to relate to them.”
She also mentioned how hands-on experience is a great way to get students excited about learning. Dietz brought her physics students to the Tower-Soudan mine on Duluth’s Iron Range to learn about neutrinos, elementary particles that travel close to the speed of light. Afterwards, the 16 high school students created graphs using the information they obtained from the underground laboratory.
“It was cool for the kids because they actually got to see the reactor,” Dietz said. “The students were able to look at the same things that the scientists down in the lab were looking at, and they used real data in their classwork.”
Another fellow, Emerald Erickson, a geology student, taught geology to Proctor High School students. Part of their curriculum involved making toothpick bridges to learn about bridge design, weight distribution, and the relationship mass plays structure. Erickson, like all the fellows, noted that activities resonate with the students, and made learning more fun. “They really enjoyed it,” Erickson said. “A few of them even got interviewed on the TV news for their projects, and that really made an impression.”
Getting recognition for achievements in math and science is something that can inspire confidence in young students and make them more enthusiastic about pursuing higher education those areas. Susan Karberg, a fellow teaching geology at Cloquet Middle School, had the chance to work with students on their science fair projects. “The high school students could take an elective course in which every student would design a science fair project. I mentored an American Indian ninth grader, Courtney Jackson, whose project was accepted to regional, state, national, and American Indian international science fairs,” Karberg said.
Jackson’s project was a map of a crater-like “circular low”
on the planet Venus. She used NASA’s Magellan radar maps provided
by Dr. Vicki Hansen, a UMD geology professor. The National American Indian
Science and Engineering Fair was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It
was really exciting for her,” said Karberg. Jackson is now on her
way to show her project at the International Science and Engineering Fair
in May in Atlanta, Ga. She will compete with 1,500 students from 54 countries.
Rachel MaKarrall, another graduate student participating in the program, is teaching biology at Proctor Middle School. As a biology graduate student, MaKarrall’s tried to get students outside the classrooms as much as she could. “Students learn faster when they are outdoors observing and experimenting with things. I tried and get them out once a week,” she said. “I’ve had success incorporating drawing into the class. It’s a scientific skill.” MaKarrall had her students draw dragonfly nymphs, pinecones and feathers. “It amazing how drawing makes us notice patterns in nature,” she said. Once, MaKarrall had her students draw a deer carcass brought to the school property by another teacher. “There a certain that ‘13-year-old gross-out factor’ that grabbed their attention,” said MaKarrall. “Some girls said, ‘Uh, that’s gross,’ but they all had fun and learned too.”
Brian Kram, a biology grad student teaching at the Fond du Lac Reservation Ojibwe School, found that combining science with the cultural curriculum at the school was enriching as well as fun for the students. “Collecting maple sap to make maple syrup is a strong tradition,” he said. “I decided to create a maple syrup project that showed students the concept of osmosis. It also helped them see how a scientific method could determine the sugar content of maple syrup,” he said.
First, Kram and his students placed raw eggs in a vinegar solution for several days, which dissolved the shells. Then they weighed the eggs. After that, they made different solutions of sugar water and placed one egg in each solution overnight. The next day, it was clear, the more sugar in the water, the larger the egg had become. The last step of the experiment was to place a final shell-less raw egg in maple syrup to compare the syrup to one of the sugar mixtures. “The first part of the project worked. The eggs swelled up to huge sizes and the kids were really impressed. The maple syrup section wasn’t as successful, but that’s part of learning, too,” he said. “Because 99 percent of the school’s students are American Indian, we did as much as we could with Native traditions.
All nine graduate fellows are filling an important need, to train students to become engaged with math and science. “Our country needs to be competitive,” said Latterell. “Knowledge of math, science and engineering are important for the economy and our communities. The U.S. falling behind much of the rest of the world. China and India, for instance. That’s why we think the endeavor is so important.”
Goodman stressed that the fellows are not activity directors. The goal of the project goes beyond getting students excited with math and science. "The excitement is a by-product of teaching science through inquiry lessons," she said. "It's not rote memorization of facts. Inquiry lessons help students learn science as a process of observation, curiosity and questioning." All the fellows impart good science practice: designing tests, trying tests, re-trying tests and new tests. That includes observing mistakes, interpreting and communicating data results. "There's lots of learning along the way," said Goodman.
It’s clear the teachers, the fellows and the students are benefiting from the project. Better yet, the participants are sure it’s a success.
by Cheryl Reitan, Mariana Osorio and Tom Gadbois
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