Bringing Out the Scientist in Students


Surrounded by centrifuges, micro-pipettes, and other scientific instruments, three high school students argued and joked.

“I’m sweeter,” said Kheane Quezon, 17.

“I’m sweet, too,” said Jurelle Santonia, also 17.

“But he’s the sweetest,” said Adriana Chavez, 18, pointing to Kheane.

The trio, made up of students and alums of Southwest High School in San Diego, wasn’t just horsing around. They were competing to find out who broke down the sugar in their food most efficiently.

The experiment was designed by a UC San Diego graduate student and a high school teacher who are taking part in an innovative program involving Scripps Institution of Oceanography that was launched this summer on campus. The Socrates Fellows Program, funded by a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, provides training for graduate students, enriches the experience of high school science teachers, and, ultimately, attracts more high school students to higher education and careers in science.

“What's exciting about this grant is that we hope it will help us address a major national problem, which is that there are not enough science students in the science pipeline,” said Maarten Chrispeels, a UCSD biology professor and co-principal investigator of the Socrates grant.

The program pairs high school teachers with graduate students working on their doctorates. Nine Socrates fellows at UCSD will work in high school classrooms for about a dozen hours a week in the 2009 school year. The hope is that the grad students will inspire high schoolers to study science in college. Grad students also will share their knowledge of science with teachers, who in turn share classroom-management tips.

The Socrates program was inspired by BioBridge, a science outreach program that started in the lab of UCSD researcher Roger Tsien, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The teachers and graduate students develop experiments based on cutting-edge science, said Loren Thompson, assistant vice chancellor of Student Educational Advancement at UCSD. Ultimately, the goal is to reach thousands of students by spreading these experiments through the San Diego, Oceanside, Sweetwater, and Grossmont school districts, Thompson said.

Meanwhile, the program also allows graduate students to improve their teaching skills, said Kim Barrett, UCSD’s dean of Graduate Studies and also a principal investigator on the Socrates grant. Training is the key reason why several Socrates fellows said they signed up for the program.

“I don’t want to be that teacher who doesn’t know how to teach,” said Johnnie Lyman, a Scripps graduate student.

She is teaching students at Mira Mesa High School this year. Alfred Chappell, who works in Barrett’s lab, also was looking for more hands-on experiences in the classroom. He is co-teaching at Southwest High.

Working with high school seniors is similar to instructing university freshmen and sophomores, Chappell said. He plans to teach at an undergraduate college after earning his doctorate and said he wanted to know how to do a better job engaging his students.

On a sunny August afternoon, Chappell was put to the test when he found himself alone in Barrett’s lab with six high school students, who were taking part in a campus outreach program. He was test-driving an activity that he and his teaching partner, David Buse, developed.

Chappell divided students in two groups that competed against each other in an experiment dubbed “the amazing amylase race.” Amylase is an enzyme found in human saliva that breaks down starch into sugar. Because of the way amylase production is coded in our genes, different individuals produce different amounts of the enzyme, Chappell said. During the experiment, students discovered what rate their saliva digested starch and how much amylase they produced.

“When you're in an actual lab you get the feeling that it has real-life applications,” said participant Nicole Garcia, 17, a student at Castle Park High School in Chula Vista.  “You start opening your mind to this idea that maybe I too can do this when I get older.”

The students’ enthusiasm was good news for Chappell. He and other Socrates fellows had spent weeks concocting experiments, which they are now taking to high school classrooms. Lyman and Mira Mesa High School teacher Chris Everett decided to use for their experiment an ocean core, a cylinder that holds samples of ocean floor sediment collected off the San Diego coast, near the Coronado Islands.

Lyman and Everett plan to teach students how to handle samples from the core, washing them, drying them, and looking at them through microscopes. The cores, it turns out, yield important information about climate change. Lyman and Everett hope that tracking the changes will make students aware that global warming is happening right in their back yard.

“One of the things that we want to get across working with a local sample and teaching them local ecology is that their world, the world they're familiar with and have lived in their whole lives, is changing also,” said Lyman.

Everett said he hopes the Socrates program allows him to bring real, cutting-edge science to his students. The program also allows his students to meet role models like Lyman. Breaking down stereotypes about scientists is another benefit of the program, said Chrispeels, the Socrates’ co-principal investigator.

“One way to get students excited about science is not to teach them from textbooks but actually to show them what young scientists look like and that they're not all white-haired European professors,” he said.

The program also fulfills UCSD’s outreach mission, said Barrett, by bringing graduate students into high schools that often have a high percentage of under-represented students. “So, the university will become not just this faceless enclave in La Jolla,” Barnett said.

The program will be considered successful if more students enter science careers and if graduate students acquire new skills and new ideas, which are valued by future employers, Chrispeels said. It also will be successful if more high school students learn more up-to-date science and get excited about science, said Jeremy Babendure, director of UCSD’s BioBridge program, which inspired the creation of the Socrates Fellows project.

“It’s going to be really exciting to see what’s going on in the schools,” he said.

This story was originally published in This Week @ UCSD.

Ioana Patringenaru

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