Vanderbilt program aims to turn public school students into scientists

Monday, May 20, 2013 at 12:28am

Every week, a handful of teenagers from across Nashville get to skip a day’s worth of class at their traditional high schools to do things like dig around in the dirt, explore caves and play with bugs.

But they are also sequencing DNA, video conferencing with scientists from NASA and conducting the kind of research — on topics like brain waves of children with language impairments — worthy of publishing in scientific journals.

These are students who, as molecular biologist Angela Eeds puts it, have an “infectious curiosity.”

She and three colleagues — a geophysicist; a chemist and forensic scientist; and a biomedical engineer — have developed a four-year curriculum to immerse public school students in science through the School of Science and Math at Vanderbilt University.

“It gives the students exposure to what it really would be like to do scientific research,” said Eeds, director of the program. Beyond math and science, students also learn about refining their writing, communicating “and just being better scholars as they get into college and beyond.”

Statistically, more than half of Metro students struggle with so-called STEM topics:  science, technology, engineering and math.

Last year, less than 45 percent of third- through eighth-graders at Metro Nashville Public Schools scored proficient or advanced in science on the state standardized tests, compared to 61 percent statewide.

The same year, less than 39 percent of MNPS students at those grade levels scored at least proficient in math, compared to 47 percent of students across the state.

But student math and science scores are on the uptick within MNPS, as are the number of eighth-grade students who want access to the rigorous extracurricular program. The School of Science and Math counted more than 155 applications for it’s selective four-year course of study this year, a 25 percent boost over last year.

Students in the program dedicate one full school day a week to attend the science and math program at Vanderbilt’s campus; they are still expected to make up their work for the high school classes they missed. In exchange, they earn high school honors credit.

“The opportunity costs of doing this program are pretty great. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t change it,” said Zoe Turner-Yovonovitch, a Hume-Fogg graduating senior who spent much of her junior year researching a new method and device for capturing and culturing environmental microbes in the Vanderbilt program.

“Other than being able to put that I’ve worked at a real research lab on a  résumé, I think we got a better understanding of all the different sciences and math, and how they’re all connected,” she said.

Students begin the program as freshmen in a survey course, learning the foundations for problem solving. They then work themselves up to developing research questions along with designing and analyzing data the next year, followed by group studies, independent research with practicing scientists and then taking those skills out in the community.

They not only learn about the proper way to mix certain chemicals or what to look for under the microscope, but take learning to the next level, like testing out ways to eradicate invasive plants at Shelby Bottoms and building robots that can “hear” where corrosion is under a bridge’s concrete surface.

“I think they come in with a stronger sense of curiosity about the material,” said Justin Montenegro, an advanced placement physics teacher at Hume-Fogg High School who said students who are enrolled at the Vanderbilt program bring more insightful questions to his classroom. “It pushes the small groups of kids who are going to be bigger movers and shakers when they get to college.”

The almost 6-year-old program was originally paid for with the help of federal funds, but is now financially supported by Vanderbilt and MNPS. With a price tag up to $400,000, the school district contributes about $225,000. The rest is made up by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and other private sources, said Virginia Shepherd, director for the Center of Science Outreach.

The idea behind the program is to take students through four years of learning not only the intricacies of the various science disciplines, but asking good questions and how to find the answers.

“I wanted to learn that way of thinking,” said Aditya Gudibanda, a graduating senior who spent much of his junior year researching algorithms to help doctors find better drug treatments by predicting molecular activity more quickly and accurately. His project landed him as one of seven in his class with the title of semifinalist in the national Intel Science Talent Search this year.

While the program is open to all students in MNPS, most admitted to the program hail from the district’s magnet high schools, like Hume-Fogg, East Literature and Martin Luther King. This year’s graduating class also includes students from Hillsboro, Hillwood, McGavock and Overton high schools.

Program officials say they’re working more on outreach to district middle schools to drum up interest in the program. Of the 5,540 eighth-graders currently in the district, less than 3 percent applied for the program this year.

“That’s a very, very small percentage. It’s not even charitable,” said Cheryl Mayes, chairwoman of the Metro school board. “So, we need to do a better job at getting our kids more interested in mathematics and science and engineering programs, and this program will grow.”


1 Comment on this post:

By: courier37027 on 5/21/13 at 1:41

It is obvious Metro property tax increases did not upwardly affect science test scores. Remember this the next time the mayor wants more noney for schools.