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NSF grant helps ISU bring science, engineering to public schools

February 27, 2007

From grade-schoolers feeling cool because they get to hang out with the high school kids to breaking down stereotypes of what a scientist is and does, a $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant to Idaho State University is bringing a unique perspective on science and engineering to southeast Idaho schools.

“It’s incredible for the University, and incredible for ISU and K through 12 students,” is how ISU biological sciences associate professor Dr. Rosemary Smith sums up the NSF Graduate Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) project that has been funded for another three years. This is a continuation of a  $1.9 million NSF grant received in 2004 to augment science and mathematics education of southeast Idaho students in grades kindergarten through 12.

    The grant is “incredible” to ISU for a number of reasons: for one, it is a significant of funding pumped into the university and community. These grants are also very prestigious: only 20 of this type of NSF were originally granted in 2004, and only 25 were granted in the United States this year.  The grant funds 11 $30,000 fellowships per year for ISU’s top graduate students in engineering, biological sciences, geosciences, mathematics and chemistry. These graduate students are partnered with a K-12 teacher for one year with the goal of improving the ability of the graduate students to communicate their science and engineering to the general public.

    Some economists talk about a “trickle-down” theory of economics. Local educators, when referring to this NSF grant, could talk about its “trickle down,” “trickle up,” “trickle all over” benefits.

    For the ISU graduate students, receiving one of these grants is prestigious because so few are awarded nationally. But one cannot eat prestige and that’s where the $30,000 comes in handy. The graduate students can pay their bills and tuition, while sharing their knowledge, serving the community and carrying out research projects. For ISU, the program helps attract top-notch grad students.

    “It’s a fantastic opportunity for our ISU students to really add something to their graduate program and it is a very generous stipend,” Smith said. “It adds to the whole Pocatello-southeast Idaho economy as well.”

    The benefits for the graduate students go well beyond economics.

    “The fellowship has really helped me out with my own communication skills,” said Brandon Briggs, an ISU microbiology master’s student from Idaho Falls. “And it has been a challenge and a lot of fun working with the kids, and I think it has really helped the high school students see the types of things a scientist does.”

    Briggs has been doing a variety of projects with students in Highland High School biology classes taught by Teri Mitton, one of  more than 40 teachers in southeast Idaho who have benefited from this program. In one project, the students have been trying to create energy out of mud by making a microbial fuel cell.

    “We went out to the Portneuf (River) and dug up sediment from under water there and then they built their own electrodes to measure the energy,” Briggs said. “They’ve absolutely jumped all over this.”

    The teacher Briggs is working with, Mitton, not only appreciates the extra learning resource Brandon provides to her, but also the benefit to both Briggs and her students.

    “It’s a valuable program,” Mitton said. “From the graduate student’s end, I think it forces them to change their vocabulary and learn to explain science simply. No matter what the field of science a graduate student studies they learn the technical language and jargon of it. The minute they start using that technical jargon in my classroom, the kids start to tune out, so the graduate student has to learn to better explain the subject, and it makes them better teachers.”

    For her high school students, Mitton said, the best thing the program has done is give them greater understanding of what scientists do.

    “Most high school students say that being a scientist is not me and that’s way above me, but when a young grad student comes in and says you can do this, it makes being a scientist appear to be something they could do, and makes it more attainable,” Mitton said.

    Briggs commented on this same phenomenon.

    “Our first day we had them draw a picture of a scientist, and they all pretty much drew a picture of a guy with big, thick glasses and bald or messed-up hair, the typical stereotypical look,” Briggs said. “I think as they’ve gotten to know me, they think scientists aren’t as big of nerds as they thought, and they can do this if they wanted to.”

    In the case of Briggs in particular, and the GK-12 grant as a whole, the program’s value goes far beyond the benefit to high schools, and flows down to grade schools. Through a supplementary grant to add on to the program at Highland High School, Briggs has helped train sophomore biology students to teach a series of  “hands-on science labs” to grade school students at Tendoy Elementary School.

    “We’re stetting up a mock forensics study for the grade-school kids to solve a crime using DNA analysis,” Brandon said. “The sophomores are going down to the fifth-grade class to work with buddies. There are five suspects in the case; each with their own DNA and the victim has DNA on them. They fifth-graders will have to match the suspect’s DNA with the victim’s DNA to be able to tell who committed this crime.”

    Of course, to complete this “CSI: Tendoy, Pocatello-type” episode, the fifth graders have to learn while being taught by high school sophomores what DNA is and build a model of it. Then the grade-schoolers learn how to extract it from fruits and vegetables and analyze it from samples.

    Tendoy fifth-grade teacher Vickie Reeder whose class is participating in the project, expressed her gratitude for the programs.

    “First of all, fifth-graders now have to take science ISAT exams, and it is all about standards,” Reeder said. “This program is helping make science interesting and helping them pass the ISAT.”

    For the fifth-graders, working with the high school students is a thrill.

    “My kids are just so enthralled with the older kids – whatever those Highland kids say my kids would do. And they really get excited when they get to go up the high school and hang out with the high school kids. My kids just love it.”

    Brandon’s work with Highland High School’s Mitton, and the subsequent activities of Mitton’s students with the fifth-graders at Tendoy, are just one example of how the GK-12 grant is working in schools in Pocatello, Chubbuck, Marsh Valley, Fort Hall, Shelley and Idaho Falls.  There have been a wide variety of other activities undertaken including participating in Lego League and FIRST Robotic competitions, field trips to measure the environmental quality of local watersheds, studies of animal behavior at zoos and the Yellowstone and Jackson areas, experiments in industrial microbiology, studying the effects of fire on soil structure and experiments on tree seedling growth under a variety of soil conditions.

    “Several of the teachers we’ve worked with said this program is the best professional development  they’ve had in their career,” noted ISU’s Smith, the grant principle investigator. “And surveys we’ve done with K-12 students and their parents show an increased interest in science. More students are taking more electives in science and math and believing it can be fun and interesting to be a scientist or an engineer.”

    And that’s exactly what this grant was designed to do.


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