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School program featured at premier science meeting

February 9, 2004

Photo of GK-12 outreach coordinator Sarah Weigel dissecting a flower for hands-on explorationAn innovative SFSU program for teaching science to middle and high school students will be showcased at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Feb. 12-16, 2004, in Seattle.

As part of a special AAAS focus on leading-edge issues in science and mathematics education, biology Professor John Stubbs and high school teacher Anne Marie Grace will talk about the GK 12 Project, a partnership between San Francisco State University and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Stubbs is principal investigator of the project, funded by the National Science Foundation. Grace teaches at San Francisco's International Studies Academy. Their presentation is one of four in a special symposium on university/school partnerships that will follow a keynote address by National Science Foundation director Dr. Rita Colwell.

The GK 12 project draws upon the skills and enthusiasm of science graduate students to enhance grade school students' interest in the sciences. Twelve grad students form collaborative partnerships with teachers and work in classrooms for an average of 10 hours a week, acting not as assistant teachers, but as scientific resource specialists who develop activities that stimulate students to ask questions and explore. To date, SFSU grad students have created more than 100 lesson activities, with direct impact on more than 3,000 San Francisco public school students.

The NSF's goal in funding the project is threefold: teachers get a fresh resource for bringing the material alive for students; graduate students serve as role models and mentors for the younger students, interesting them in science careers; and graduate students develop mentoring philosophies and practices in the hopes that they'll continue to value and practice youth outreach throughout their scientific careers. In addition, the graduate students receive $27,500 stipends that help support their graduate studies.

The program is especially helpful in middle schools or under-performing schools, which may not be able to recruit teachers trained specifically in the sciences. "By having a partnership between a real science student and a teacher, you can show a teacher that science concepts are accessible -- you can do it, it's sustainable and it's fun," Stubbs said.

Photo of Biology Professor John StubbsSFSU faculty in the colleges of Education and Science and Engineering work with the grad students to develop teaching and presentation skills and conduct joint grad student/SFUSD teacher workshops. The program also provides some books and materials that grad students can use in lessons –- such traditional aids as microscope slides, thermometers and mineral sets and the more unusual Slinky® walking springs, tornado in a bottle, air powered rocket and mousetrap powered cars.

Sarah Weigel, a grad student partner in 2001-02 who is now an outreach coordinator with the program, says that typical activities are hands-on experiences that lead to self-discovery of key concepts in the curriculum. "For example, we wanted to teach about viscosity in a sixth-grade earth science course, so we started out having students race different liquids down an incline and time the flow. They calculated averages, integrated some graphing into it, and eventually got into a discussion of why liquids are moving at different rates, and lo and behold you're talking about something called viscosity."

Stubbs points out that, on a national level, "there's been a lot of research on cognitive learning that shows inquiry-based learning is more effective than rote. You get deep learning from the kids and deep appreciation of the concepts."

There's good evidence that the approach works, too. Students are more enthusiastic about science, grades have improved and teachers who said they would have left a school credit the program with retaining them. "In a physics class at Thurgood Marshall (high school) grades have moved up an average of a notch," Stubbs says. In fact, Marshall students have teamed up with peers at International Studies Academy to form an after-school physics club.

Currently, 12 master's degree students in the College of Science and Engineering are partnered with science teachers at Horace Mann, Visitacion Valley and A.P. Giannini middle schools and at six high schools: International Studies Academy, Phillip and Sala Burton, John O'Connell, Thurgood Marshall, Wallenberg and Lowell.

SFSU was one of the first universities in California awarded NSF funds for the initial track of the GK 12 program, beginning in fall 2001. Later this year the project enters a second phase, with a new, $2 million award for five years. In this phase, the College and school district will transition toward institutionalized support. Support from the NSF will be reduced over the five years, but master's candidates will use the outreach partnership experience to fulfill a new "science education" component that they can elect toward meeting thesis requirements. The intent is to have science outreach partnership become a permanent part of the College of Science and Engineering mission, a goal strongly supported by Dean Sheldon Axler.

-- Ellen Griffin


San Francisco State University

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Last modified July 27, 2004 by University Communications