Broadening Access to Science: Science Posse, Biology Olympiad, and Let's Get Ready
Summary: Irving Epstein's Science Posse program recruits, trains, and mentors students from New York City high schools to help improve their success in science. New initiatives, in which current Science Posse scholars will play leading roles, include a program aimed at bringing low-income Boston high school students into science and a Biology Olympiad for Boston-area middle school students.
With our 2006 HHMI professors grant, we developed, in collaboration with the Posse Foundation of New York City, a Science Posse program to significantly increase the recruitment and retention of students from populations traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. The program recruits, trains, and provides mentoring and other services for "posses" of 10 inner-city students each year to prepare them for studying science at Brandeis University. A network of high school teachers and leaders of extracurricular science programs recommend talented students, who participate in an eight-month precollege training program that builds teamwork and enhances students' academic and leadership skills.
At Brandeis, the students attend a two-week, on-campus "bootcamp" the summer before matriculation, which introduces them to the rigors of studying science. After the students start classes, they are linked with a graduate student mentor, who meets with them regularly, both individually and in groups. The initial results have been extremely encouraging, both in terms of the students' academic success and their growing enthusiasm for science. The Science Posse program has now recruited three cohorts of 10 students each from New York City high schools. Of the 20 who are currently enrolled, all are still planning to major in science. Eight have made the dean's list, and the overall Science Posse GPA is well above a B. Science Posse scholars have been accepted at prestigious summer research programs at schools like Yale, Case Western, Tufts, and the University of Utah.
As a result of the Posse program, minority enrollment in introductory science courses at Brandeis has increased well beyond the number of Posse students. Preliminary surveys indicate that both minority and majority students experience a learning environment that sets high standards for their success. Several Science Posse students have become campus leaders, and a group of them recently founded a Brandeis chapter of SACNAS (Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science). The Posse program has attracted national attention, with articles in the Boston Globe and Nature Chemical Biology and more than $1.5 M in additional funding from foundations and individual donors.
One common hurdle for all students is introductory chemistry. As part of our first HHMI professor grant, we introduced made major revisions to Brandeis’s introductory chemistry course in an effort to have more students view it as an opportunity to expand their intellectual horizons, rather than as a painful hurdle to overcome. We implemented a variety of improvements, including new demonstrations, closer coordination between the lecture and laboratory courses, a peer-taught supplementary instruction program, and video games that allow the students to interactively probe some of the topics taught in class. We have taught nearly 900 students over four years in the revised general chemistry course. Surveys show that student satisfaction is higher than with the previous chemistry course, and the percentage of students continuing on to the next level in chemistry and biology has increased.
With our new HHMI grant, we will continue the Science Posse with a focus on evaluation and dissemination. During the next four years, we will follow the first three Science Posse cohorts through graduation, tracking their academic progress, their attitudes toward and persistence in science, and their postgraduate career plans, as well as their impact on the attitudes of students, faculty, and administrators at Brandeis. We will continue to perfect the recruitment, selection, precollege training, boot camp, and on-campus mentoring aspects of the program, and we will prepare materials that will enable other institutions to benefit from our experience. We will, together with the Posse Foundation, serve as a resource for universities interested in starting Science Posse programs. We anticipate the initiation of three to five new programs during the next four years.
We plan to develop a second, Boston-based program that could reach a wider range of institutions with help from Let's Get Ready, an organization has successfully expanded college access for low-income students by utilizing undergraduates as tutors and mentors. We will create a science-oriented version of the program that will serve 30–50 high school students from Boston and nearby Waltham, Massachusetts, each year. The program will include college preparatory mentoring (with some Science Posse students serving as mentors), a Saturday morning science lecture and discussion series by Brandeis faculty, and internships at the Discovery Museums in Acton, Massachusetts.
The third effort will be to adapt a regional version of the United States Biology Olympiad, normally for high school students, aimed at Boston- and Waltham-area seventh and eighth graders. Working with Science Posse scholars and other Brandeis undergraduates, we will develop examination materials, including laboratory exercises, suitable for middle school students. The two-tiered competition will involve several hundred middle school students, with the top 50 advancing to the "finals" at Brandeis, where they will participate in a "cool science" day led by the Posse students. We will assess the impact of the program as it develops to determine whether it can serve as a model for recruiting middle school students in other urban areas.
Related HHMI Project Publications
Epstein, I.R. "Diversity in Chemistry: Catalyzing Change." Nature Chem. Biol. 3 (2007): 299-302.
Our primary research interests lie in the area of nonlinear chemical dynamics. Our laboratory focuses on patterns in time and space that arise in chemical reactions in media in which the reacting species may also diffuse. Phenomena of interest include periodic concentration oscillations, chemical chaos, traveling waves, and spatially periodic stationary (Turing) patterns. Nearly all of these behaviors are seen not only in the relatively simple chemical reactions studied by our group, but in living systems as well. We seek to build new systems that exhibit spatiotemporal patterns; to unveil the existence of new types of patterns; and to understand, often by using mathematical models and computer simulation, how such phenomena can arise. One goal of this work is to shed light on the more complex patterns exhibited by cells and organisms.
Because patterns are ubiquitous in all fields, this work has applications to, and makes use of techniques from, a wide variety of disciplines beyond chemistry, including biology, physics, mathematics, engineering, materials science, and even the social sciences. A related area of current research is the study of the dynamical behavior of networks of interacting units, which may be thought of as chemical reactions, elements of the power grid, cells, or living organisms. Many of the insights and techniques developed in the study of chemical systems can usefully be applied to understanding the properties of such networks.