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A Scientist of Their Own
A Scientist of their Own


Elementary school science teacher Charles Baskerville, left, and Baylor College of Medicine postdoctoral fellow Wayel Orfali demonstrate that oil (clear) does not dissolve in water (dyed blue).

The fifth graders can barely contain their excitement. "Our scientist is coming," one shouts. "Our scientist is here," exclaims another.

Colleen McDaniel grins as she sees McNamara Elementary School teacher Ibiteyin Myers shepherding her students into their seats. McDaniel, a second-year graduate student studying molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, is also the fifth graders' very own scientist. She's a Science Education Leadership Fellow (SELF), one of a growing cadre of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who are pairing up with elementary school teachers to improve science teaching and learning in Houston classrooms.

The SELF program is a partnership between Baylor and the Houston Independent School District, supported by a $539,714 grant from HHMI. The Institute funds the program through its biomedical research institution outreach grants, designed to encourage medical research centers to share their human and technological resources with their communities.

Today, the children learn about brain dominance. "Pick up a pencil," McDaniel says. "Which hand did you pick it up with?" All but one of the children had used their right hand. "Nine out of 10 people are right-handed," she tells them. "But guess what? That means they are using the left side of their brains."

After explaining that the brain's left side is dominant in right-handed people and the right side is dominant for those who automatically use their left hand, McDaniel gives the fifth graders some other experiments to try. "Cover one eye and look at me with the other," she says. "Cover one ear and listen with the other. Stand up and take a step forward. Which eye and ear did you cover? Which foot moved first?"

As the students record their results, they discover that six of 26 favored their left eye or ear, but when it came to putting the left or right foot first, the class was split just about 50-50. "So even if you are dominant on one side, that doesn't mean you always use it for everything," McDaniel points out.

The Baylor scientists co-teach at least four "learning by doing" lessons a year in their teacher-partners' classrooms. Most of them go to "their" schools many more than four times. The program helps the teachers learn science content along with more interesting, interactive ways to engage their young students in science, while the scientists hone their teaching and communication skills.

In a second-grade classroom at Wharton Elementary School, SELF scientist Wayel Orfali and SELF teacher Charles Baskerville are teaching a hands-on science lesson about substances that dissolve in water. "Why is it important to find out if things dissolve in water?" asks Orfali, a postdoctoral fellow in pathology at Baylor. "Because we don't know," one of the children suggests. "Scientific curiosity, yes," Orfali replies. "Why else? Because 70 percent of the human body is water, and that water carries nutrients to every part of the body."

As the children try dissolving salt, sugar, oil and flour, they spill a little and learn a lot. The sugar and salt disappear into the water. The flour makes it cloudy and collects at the bottom. The oil floats in bubbles, mostly on the top.

"When it dissolves, where does it go?" asks Sergio, a recent emigrant from Colombia. "When you put it in the water, it breaks down into its littlest parts, so you can't see it," Orfali replies.

More than 60 teachers at 39 schools and 31 Baylor graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have worked or are working together in SELF. They've taught more than 2,000 elementary school students and touched thousands more students and families through family science festivals.

Baylor College of Medicine and the Houston schools joined forces in 1999 to help improve the science education that children were getting in public schools where 87 percent of students are African-American or Hispanic, and 79 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. The program targets elementary school, where study habits are formed and problems begin.

Houston public schools face challenges typical of many urban settings, yet since SELF began, 19 elementary schools have moved up at least one category in the Texas Public School Accountability System, which measures student achievement, and ten were classified as "exemplary" in 2003. The school district has partnered with the program by footing the bill for a total of up to 72 substitute days annually, to enable teachers to attend full-day workshops during the school year.

The teachers, too, have made measurable strides. One has become a science specialist for the Houston Urban Systemic Initiative, which is seeking to reform public education there. Twenty-three have become science lab specialists or grade-level chairs, or assumed other leadership positions in their schools, and nine have won competitive teaching awards or grants.

At Baylor, as awareness grew about the importance of science education in the schools, the College of Medicine established a Biosciences Resource Lab within the Center for Educational Outreach, devoted full time to educational activities. Throughout the year and in the summer, SELF teachers work in the resource lab with their scientist-partners and project staff to learn approaches to biological research, before completing a project in their partners' labs. In 2001, Baylor was one of two medical schools to win a grant from the National Science Foundation to establish graduate teaching fellowships in K-12 science education. The school also received $1.2 million from the Houston Endowment to develop an innovative alternative teaching certification program in collaboration with Texas A&M University.

The scientist-fellows also are being transformed. More than half have continued working with their teachers after their two years in SELF ended. Jon Levitt started in SELF as a graduate student, continued as a postdoctoral fellow, and now as an assistant professor in Baylor's surgery department, he is still volunteering his time and talent.

"It's changed the way I think, the way I work," says Giuseppe "Pino" Monaco, a postdoctoral associate in molecular and human genetics. "In these classrooms, there are so many variables, so many things going on that are not under our control. The teachers have to cope with so many cultural problems."

"Going into the schools is a humbling experience," observes Bonnie Nannenga-Combs, a predoctoral fellow in virology and microbiology. "We're out of our element." One of Nannenga-Combs' teacher-partners worked in a science magnet school, with many children of doctors or scientists, and the other taught in a disadvantaged section of the city. "The lower-income kids wanted to know all about me, where I came from, what my family was like, what it's like to be a scientist," she says. "What they really were asking was, 'Could I do that?'"

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Jim Keeley
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