Professor takes science to area elementary school pupils

MIDDLEBURY — Most elementary school students would not have the slightest idea what to do in a college biology lab.
But seeing his 4- and 7-year-old daughters in the lab was exactly what inspired Middlebury College biology professor Jeremy Ward to apply for a National Science Foundation grant to teach genetic biology to schoolchildren in Addison County.
“They don’t know that they’re not supposed to be able to do it,” said Ward of his daughters. “When I watch (them) in here and say ‘Do this,’ they go and do it.”
The five-year grant, which Ward received in the spring of 2009, has two goals. One is to support Ward and his students in their ongoing research on gene mutation in mice, specifically as it relates to fertility and cancer-causing mutations. The second is to develop and teach hands-on genetics programs at schools in the Addison Central Supervisory Union, both by bringing younger students to the college and by bringing the fully outfitted mobile genetics lab, the “Gene Wagon,” into the schools.
According to a summary of the project that Ward provided, “children who fall below the poverty level consistently score far below their peers, at times as much as 40 percent below, on assessments of reading, math, and writing.” Moreover, “(a study by the National Research Council of the National Academies) emphasizes that curriculum design to date has generally underestimated children’s capacity to learn science and hence has produced students that perform far below their potential in this area.”
The grant (formally called the Faculty Early Career Development Program but informally referred to as CAREER) is designed to further the careers of pre-tenure academic faculty. Though Ward received a tenure position at the college this July 1, the grant will continue through its full term — this Sept. 1 will mark the end of the first year. So far, it has funded the hiring of a research and outreach coordinator, Nancy Graham, and four paid student interns each year, as well as equipment for the lab and the Gene Wagon.
Ward worked with area science teachers to refine his goals for the program in a way that would encourage students to take an active interest in learning science and that would dovetail with curriculums in the classrooms of the ACSU district.
“The idea was not to swoop in from our ivory tower and rescue these poor schools,” said Ward of his experience working with these teachers. “The schools are doing an awesome job. We wanted to make sure that they knew that the college was committing resources towards making sure (their program) was a success.”
What he and the teachers he spoke with agreed on was that their primary goal was to offer resources and expertise by which to engage students — including impoverished and underserved children who might not otherwise have access to these opportunities — in hands-on activities that would raise their awareness and interest in science.
This type of proposal is particularly synchronous with the goals of the National Science Foundation, said Ward.
“(These grants are) supposed to set you up and, at the same time, set up a program that brings science to the public,” he said. “One of the biggest criticisms of science these days, especially climate science, is that nobody has any idea what these people are doing.”
For the past year, Ward and his students have been working with two area schools — Weybridge Elementary and Beeman Elementary in New Haven.
The project has undergone unexpected changes, Ward said. He had hoped to structure the classes as afterschool programs in each school, but this yielded a much smaller percentage of participants than he had hoped in the first run of the afterschool program at Beeman.
“We found that we would miss many of the kids that we wanted to hang out with because they take the bus,” Ward said. “It’s just not a reality that every kid has a parent to pick them up after (the program).”
And though Ward still hopes to expand the program’s offerings to middle schools — likely to Middlebury Union Middle School in the near future — he also found that elementary schools have an easier time incorporating the program into the school day, since they have fewer state standards and more flexible schedules.
The first of a number of experiments and activities that students did was an exercise in strawberry DNA isolation. Students crushed up the fruits with dish soap and salt, then bathed the mush in ethanol.
“The DNA forms this silvery white strand that looks like cotton, swirling in the ethanol. You can actually see it,” Ward said.
And this experiment was not one that required any special equipment — rather, it was designed to teach students that genetic biology could be performed at home, with everyday ingredients.
Students also got the chance to look at their own cells, learning to scrape their cheeks and use microscopes to see pieces of their own bodies invisible to the naked eye.
“It’s really fun,” Ward said. “The best part about it is seeing them realize what they just did.”
In the coming years, Ward hopes to build on these and other activities, delving further into genetic biology — he found the elementary school students to be more than capable of the tasks he’d assigned them.
“This first year was our starter year. We’re going to debrief and meet with teachers in August.”
From there, he, Graham and the college students will be creating manuals geared toward different age levels, designed so that other schools can use the programs they have piloted. Then they hope to bring in teachers and introduce them to the curriculum, making the resources that they have purchased with the grant available for loan to those schools.
“What I wanted to do was provide resources for schools that go beyond the grant,” he said.
The National Science Foundation grant funds four college student interns each year, which allows them to spend time doing research and also to be the ones going into the schools and teaching the science programs. And by all accounts, said Ward, this interaction has helped both the college students and the elementary school students.
Anne Runkel, who will be a senior at the college this fall, is one of the students working on her own research on gene mutation in the lab this summer. She has taken an active role in the outreach aspect of Ward’s program, teaching classes and helping to create the curriculum.
“The power of the program has little to do with the topic, and more to do with the relationship within and amongst younger people,” Ward said. “It’s not just another teacher coming in, it’s Anne.
“When I came in instead of Anne, they got visibly upset,” he added. “Like, deflated.”
Runkel, for her part, said the experience has allowed her to view her work from another perspective.
“It makes you ask questions that you’ve never asked yourself,” she said.
Graham added that teaching younger students takes college students out of their comfort zone, forcing them to really think about what their own research means.
“(Your peers) have more of the same background as you. Whereas if you’re talking to a fifth-grader, you can’t say ‘CDNA’ to a fifth-grader and have them say ‘Oh, I know what you’re talking about,’” she said.
Runkel added that being forced to explain her research to the younger students has helped her learn how to make her learning interesting and accessible.
“When you’re doing any research about something, you have to be able to get other people excited about it,” she said.
Ward hopes the benefit the younger students and elementary schools have reaped will prove to be a good reason for the continuation of the project after the five years are up, either with renewed funds from the National Science Foundation or with funds from the college.
“It’s not rocket science, what I was hoping to do,” he said. “What I was hoping to do was to get enough money to give any of the schools more opportunity than they had before.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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