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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.