Special Report

The Scientist Comes to the Classroom

Partnerships that pair schools and working scientists are helping kids think about science—and science careers—in ways they never imagined

(Capital City Public Charter School)

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Using in vitro fertilization, doctors at the University of Minnesota created several embryos from Molly’s parents’ eggs and sperm. They looked at the DNA in each embryo and, fortunately, found one that was a viable bone marrow match and not a carrier of the disease. Wu explains to her captive audience that this embryo was implanted in Molly’s mother, and when the baby, Adam, was born, umbilical cord blood was used to save his sister’s life.

“What do you think about this way of saving somebody?” she asked the classroom in D.C. “Now, remember, there is no right or wrong answer.”


This past March, Smithsonian and the Pew Research Center teamed up to test Americans’ understanding of basic science. The survey, taken by more than 1,000 adults, consisted of 13 questions. What is the main function of red blood cells, for example, and, what gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise? The average grade on the quiz was a D+.

An alarming 46 percent of those polled said that the main reason young people don’t pursue degrees in science and math is because these subjects are “too hard.” That said, many thought leaders are of the belief that the future success of the country rides on schools producing a bigger and better workforce of people in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) related fields. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in science and engineering is expected to grow by 20.6 percent between 2008 and 2018, in comparison to an overall employment growth rate of 10.1 percent.

So, what gives? How can the education system in the United States meet these demands?

One strategy, as evidenced by the Personal Genetics Education Project, has been to bring scientists into classrooms, in hopes that they might bolster the curriculum, create working partnerships with teachers and, most importantly, ignite a passion for science within students.

For 12 years, the National Science Foundation executed this strategy on a large scale, with its Graduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Fellows in K-12 Education program, more commonly known as the GK-12 program. The program doled out 5-year grants to universities, so that eight to ten graduate students in science each year could work with teachers in local K-12 classrooms. The arrangement, at least anecdotally, benefited all parties involved. The fellows became better communicators of science. The teachers’ knowledge of their subject strengthened, as did their comfort level with leading experiments, and the students’ excitement for science improved. More than 10,000 GK-12 fellows worked in 5,000 schools across the country serving more than a half million students, before the program ended in 2011 due to federal budget cuts.

Some of the colleges that participated in the GK-12 program have found ways to keep the effort alive, even without NSF funding. Vanderbilt University’s Scientist in the Classroom Partnership Program, for example, partners graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in STEM departments at five local universities with teachers in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. For ten days during the summer, the scientists, with varying expertise—in agricultural sciences, biochemistry and civil engineering, to name a few—meet with K-12 teachers to co-design lesson plans. Then, during the school year, the scientists spend one day each week in the classroom, orchestrating hands-on activities. For elementary school kids, an experiment might be making ice cream using liquid nitrogen; for middle schoolers, perhaps it is studying osmosis in a potato slice, and high schoolers might get a lesson in inheritance and blood typing. This year, the program distributed 20 scientists to nine different Nashville public schools.

According to the program’s coordinator, Jeannie Tuschl, achievement scores in science last year at Hattie Cotton STEM Magnet Elementary, one of the participating schools, doubled. Pre-testing indicates that scores there will double yet again this year. She also says that schools often report higher attendance on days that the scientists are in.


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