Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Eureka! Someone else had an idea

This summer, UMass is collaborating with Girls, Inc. of Holyoke to host 30 girls in a Eureka! camp, which is basically a five week program to try and get girls into science and technology. What is special about this summer program is first that it is looking for B and C  - not A - students to participate, second that it is taking kids from an area where the high school graduation rate hovers around 50%, and third, that the kids (and parents) signing on do so for five summers, with continued programming in the school year. 

Moo ha ha ha - you are chained in to science for the next five years! (you have no idea how many inapropriate pictures I had to go through on google images to get to this one). Image courtesy of shutterstock.com

So, put in front of a group of 13 year olds, what do you try and teach them? How do you make it relevant, and keep them engaged? Ignore stereotypes about female teen preferences, I hope.

The first task was to learn about the state science curriculum for seventh and eighth graders to see what they should know and/or be doing in school at this time. It hasn't been updated for seven years, though, which means it doesn't account for such life-altering knowledge such as the fact that humans and neanderthals probably mated (therefore explaining the peculiar morphology of the Pold skull), or that, like us,  bacteria have adaptive immune systems (ie they can mount invader-specific responses as a result of remembering the suite of invaders they or their ancestors have previously faced). But basically the state science curriculum tells us to let the students start to do hypothesis-driven work. That seems like a well, duh statement that should invite questions about how younger children do science if they don't make hypotheses. But somehow, various researchers studying microbial ecology seem to take almost exclusively exploratory approaches to their work. So anyway - we should promote classical science.

The second task was to learn what these girls think about, so that we can make the class relevant. This dragged up a very long discussion about middle school. Awkward. Why would you ever want to talk about those years of terror. You know what was going through my mind at that time? How pathetic and immature my peers were for forming cliques. That hasn't changed much - to a certain extent, scientists never grow out of middle school. Many of them are still fundamentally insecure and bitter, some of them want to be everyone's friend, and some of them want to have all the latest toys, no matter the cost. Scientists have cliques, teenage girls have cliques. Perfect match.

Look! Amorphous clone meets similarly amorphous clone and makes one happy clique. Image courtesy of

The final task was to figure out what to teach them. My PI and I decided that getting them to collect soil from their yard or a park near their house (or somewhere on the UMass campus) and getting them to compare carbon dioxide emissions and the number of cells in a gram of soil might be a good idea. We would teach them about how lots of microbes are generally found where there is a lot of carbon, and how there is more carbon in forest soil than soil around a street tree, and ask them to predict which soil will have the most microbes and/or the highest level of carbon dioxide production. We would then tie back into climate change and land use change in the context of greening abandoned lots (of which the Peter Pan bus between Springfield and UMass assured me there were many).

But do you think middle school girls can connect to soil, climate change, and land use change? How could soil inspire you?

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