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Scientists Use Passion, Experience to Bridge Math, Science Gap among Young People

Posted by struscott | March 7, 2008

The lack of diversity among students enrolled in math and science classes in higher education is stirring action nationwide. A 2000 National Center for Education Statistics survey indicated that Asian/Pacific Islanders and white high school students were more likely to be enrolled in advanced mathematics and sciences in college than any other racial or ethnic group. In fact, African-American and Hispanic enrollments have declined as much as 32 percent in the last three years.

Colleges and universities nationwide are expending considerable effort to recruit minority students. But getting students interested in math and science has been a persistent challenge for many years.

Science as Vocation

Scientists and researchers with the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Washington State University are meeting the challenge with the “Pumping-Up the Math and Science Pipeline: Grade School to College” program. The program focuses on bringing math and science researchers and college faculty into local K-12 classrooms to teach and engage students in science experiments.

“Our program began three years ago and has tried to develop a pipeline of young scientists by cultivating them at an early age,” said program director David Weller, a USDA-ARS plant pathologist and research leader based at WSU. The program tries to instill the idea that math and science are vocations, countering what one writer in the Chronicle of Higher Education identified as the “cultural imperative” that discourages the study of math and science as taking too much hard work over too long a period of time.

The Pipeline Program began when USDA-ARS, WSU and other researchers began collaborating with members of the Colville reservation to develop energy efficiency via the production of biofuels. The program then branched out, bringing together scientists and young students and offering hands-on teaching in the classroom, summer science camps, research internships and employment opportunities.

“We realized that if we are going to make a greater impact on the Colville reservation we have to begin to interact with those students at a young age and in their classrooms,” said Weller.

Creativity Makes a Difference

Bringing creativity, scientific rigor, and a sense of wonder into the classroom has helped make a difference. Researchers are able to engage with and teach young students by channeling their scientific specialties into fun experiments. Experiments range from extracting DNA from a banana and observing plant lifecycles on field trips to simulating soil erosion on a lab bench with simple equipment.

“On my last visit, I was able to teach the kids how to calculate how many calories are in chips by burning them and watching the water change temperature. They were all excited and you could see their faces just light up. They all wanted to help out with something and it was great to see them so interested in science,” said Ralph Young, a 2008 physical sciences graduate of WSU and a member of the Cowlitz tribe.

Expanding the Pipeline

Weller and his collaborators have also created a solid model to expand and spread the Pipeline Program to other schools throughout Washington and beyond.

“After we developed a strong foundation for the program, we were then able to take that same platform over to other schools in Rochester and Oakville,” said Kathleen Parker, USDA-ARS program assistant. “Expanding the program allows more scientists to get involved and allows more students to get a strong background that will, we hope, lead to future successes in these areas.”

These programs are run by a partnership of organizations and schools across the state. Bellevue Community College, WSU, WSU Extension in Ferry County, WSU College Bound and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are all major contributors to the program with the USDA-ARS, said Parker.

When Scientists Invest in Society

“Universities and research labs are filled with faculty, staff and graduate students who want to give back to society and share their expertise with grade school and high school students. They want to train and pass on their knowledge to the next generation of scientists and researchers and this program provides a platform to do that,” said Weller.

“It’s really a sweet opportunity to see the local kids atPaschal Sherman Indian School engage and interact so closely with dynamic scientists,” said Gail Casper, director of WSU College Bound in Omak, Wash.

The investment involved passing on passion for knowledge to young people is likely to translate to economic well being as jobs are created and technological solutions to pressing energy, food and climate problems are discovered. The Pipeline Program, which partners mature scientists, undergraduate researchers and K-12 students, addresses a glaring gap in the United States’ growing knowledge economy based on creativity, invention and a marketplace of ideas rather than the manufacturing and distribution of widgets.

John Gardener, WSU’s vice president for economic development and Extension said, “We live in a knowledge economy. The concept of lifelong learning, the concept of the university touching and being responsible for an educational relationship with all its citizens is probably more relevant in our knowledge-based economy than ever before.”

–Desiree Kiliz, CAHNRS and WSU Extension
Marketing, News, and Educational Communications Intern

Additional reporting by Brian Charles Clark

For a related story, please read “From Biofuels to Native Outreach – It’s all in a Day’s Work for Science Major Ralph Young”