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March / April 2003

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Scientists at the Head of the Class

Photo by Margaret Nagle

Scientists at the Head of the Class
With NSF funding, some of UMaine's leading student researchers are taking their enthusiasm for science into public schools

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Clad in a large red parka, black snow pants and giant blue boots, University of Maine senior Ethan Perry faces a flurry of questions from a dozen squirming third graders when he strides into their classroom at the Herbert Gray School in Old Town, Maine. A life-size inflatable emperor penguin is tucked under his arm.

His oversize footgear sparks the most interest. "Will it hurt if I step on your foot?" asks one boy. Probably not, Perry answers with a grin. "Are they heavy?" No, pretty hollow. "Why are they so big?" To accommodate layers of socks and boot liners. "Why are they blue?" Don't know.

"Did you see penguins?" queries another student. Yes, lots of them, but no emperor penguins. "Did you pet them?" No, they're too skittish. "Did you slide on your belly like a penguin?" Not exactly, Perry says, launching into a story about sliding down ice fields on a shovel.

The rampant curiosity is precisely the response the geology major from Ashland, Maine, hoped to elicit with the cold-weather getup, courtesy of a trip to Antarctica he made with other UMaine researchers in spring 2001.

"I want to make the students aware that scientists can go and do things that are both fun and important from a research point of view," Perry says of his teaching. "Being a role model is as important as providing scientific information."

Soon Perry has the students planning their own trips to Antarctica. They decide what they will study, how they will get to the ice-covered continent and what "essentials" to take with them. The youngsters decide DVD players and penguin food are among the must-have items.

"He's very fun. I like the experiments we do with him," says 8-year-old Sam Peabody. His favorite activity with Perry was a fieldtrip to Schoodic Point, a scenic rocky outcropping on the Maine coast that is part of Acadia National Park, where students mapped geologic features and surveyed tidal pools.

Sparking students' interest
Such excitement, curiosity and personal interaction between university and K-12 students is the whole point behind the National Science Foundation Graduate Teaching Fellows program. The national initiative supports the studies of university science students while improving K-12 science education and strengthening the bonds between universities and local schools. It especially hopes to encourage more K-12 students to pursue science as a career by providing them with young working scientists as role models.

This year, Perry is one of 12 NSF Teaching Fellows at the University of Maine young scientists who are reaching thousands of students at elementary, middle and high schools in local communities. (In addition, a dozen NSF Teaching Fellows in a new program in the College of Engineering use UMaine sensor research for lessons at Bangor High School.)

Strong partnerships between the university and K-12 districts are formed because fellows and teachers work regularly and collaboratively with scientists at the university. The program helps students and teachers meet the specified goals of Maine's Learning Results statewide education standards by sharing information and new research in areas related to science and technology, such as chemistry, molecular biology, geology and mathematics.

The program achieves its goals and more, says Sandy Daniel, the teacher of the third grade class at the Herbert Gray School. "He sparks their interest and makes them learn more," Daniel says of Perry's time in her classroom. "He motivates them."

The Teaching Fellows program was started at UMaine three years ago with a $1.3 million NSF grant. UMaine was one of 20 successful applicants out of 170 colleges and universities nationwide that applied.

The grant was recently renewed and enlarged. Gov. John Baldacci was on hand to announce that UMaine had received $1.5 million to continue and expand the Teaching Fellows program through 2006. The additional money means more school districts can participate and as many as 10,000 students will benefit.

Sharing the excitement
The initiative to bring the program to the University of Maine was spearheaded by Susan Brawley, a marine sciences professor. Other UMaine faculty members who oversee the fellows are Barbara Cole, chemistry; Susan Hunter, biological sciences; Stephen Norton, geology; and Michael Vayda, biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology.

"I decided by the fourth grade to be a scientist because I got so jazzed by seeing things under a microscope," Brawley says. "It's exciting to let these students at the cutting edge of their disciplines take their enthusiasm for science to our public school classrooms."

In addition to putting university students in classrooms, the NSF grant money allows UMaine to share scientific equipment with local schools. For example, although Maine's K-12 Learning Results education standards require that students begin to use microscopes by fourth grade, few elementary schools regularly visited by the Teaching Fellows had them, and they were not of high quality, Brawley says. The UMaine program provides a cost-effective means for many districts to share expensive equipment that few could budget alone.

"One thing this program does is offer an opportunity for success," says David Ploch, a science teacher at Old Town High School. With equipment from the university, his students are now able to extract and analyze their own DNA, which is more interesting than studying the genetic material from an onion as they did before the NSF program.

The NSF money also allows fellows to take their classes on fieldtrips, a luxury foregone by many cash-strapped schools. While Maine's coastline is legendary, some children had never visited the ocean until they took an NSF-sponsored fieldtrip. Once at the ocean's edge, they did fieldwork, such as quantifying different species of animals and algae.

Professional development opportunities are available through the NSF program, including funding for travel by K-12 teachers and the fellows who work in their classes. Last summer, two teams of public school teachers and UMaine students were in Kenya banding birds in a United Nations biosphere reserve, and teaching classes and seminars with Kenyan teachers and their students.

Another teacher and NSF fellow traveled to Japan. There, they worked with a leading expert on "red tides," the harmful algae that can shut down shellfish harvesting along coastal waters. Their visit also motivated educational exchanges between the University of Tokyo faculty and a local high school.

Back in Maine, the educators and Teaching Fellows incorporated their experiences abroad into lessons for their students.

Expecting the best
NSF fellowships augment available funding for outstanding graduate students and allow them to undertake more independent research projects. For example, master's degree student Deborah Perkins from Cumberland, Maine, is studying ruddy turnstones, a migratory shorebird that summers in the Arctic. Through her own grant writing, she secured funds to cover the extensive travel and operational costs related to Arctic fieldwork last summer. The NSF fellowship allows Perkins to fully focus on her scientific study and to work closely with her faculty research advisor without having to secure funding for tuition and a stipend.

In the classroom, Perkins hopes to inspire young women to follow in her footsteps, which have crisscrossed the country from Tennessee to Montana to Alaska, mostly in pursuit of bears. Her interests shifted to migratory birds shortly before she came to UMaine in 2001.

"I have given talks to high school students about my bear work. The girls are so amazed because it is so atypical," she says.

The benefits of the NSF Teaching Fellows program reach far beyond the classroom, says educator Pam Kimball, who first participated as the curriculum coordinator for School Union 90. Students benefit by learning from and being inspired by real scientists. Teachers benefit by being exposed to the latest scientific knowledge.

In addition, the program raises academic standards by encouraging students to tackle complicated scientific problems with the belief that they can solve them, says Kimball, now the principal of two elementary schools in Brewer, Maine.

Because of the NSF program, Kimball says, "we will have more scientists and engineers leave our schools."

by Susan Young
March-April, 2003

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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