A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Mason, NSF Program Puts Science and Engineering Grad Students in K-12 Classrooms

January 25, 2012

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Middle school students love Mason doctoral student Elizabeth Nohelty Romano. That might sound like a wonderful thing, but it is undermining her authority as the resident scientist at Manassas Park Middle School.

Romano knows from the training she’s received as a fellow in Mason’s Schools, University ’N’ (and) Resources in Science and Engineering (SUNRISE) project that the first five minutes of class are the most important for setting the tone and managing the students.

Her SUNRISE colleagues throw out suggestions at their biweekly meeting: “You should wear darker colors” and “You need to work on a mean face to use with them to show them you are serious about talking about science.”

SUNRISE Engineering Camp from George Mason University on Vimeo.

Romano, who is working on her PhD in environmental science and policy, is one of eight graduate students that the SUNRISE project has placed in elementary and middle schools in Alexandria, Manassas Park, and Fairfax County. Fellows spend 10 hours a week in the classroom and work closely with the resident teacher to provide hands-on experiments that not only adhere to the Virginia Science Standards of Learning, but also enhance them.

SUNRISE is part of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education Program, which provides funding to engage science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate students in infusing their science content knowledge and research into teaching. This is Mason’s fifth year participating.

Fifth-grade students at Hutchinson Elementary School in Herndon, Virginia, get to work on an experiment. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

The project is a win-win arrangement for the university and the public schools, according to Rajesh Ganesan, an associate professor in the Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research in the Volgenau School of Engineering and a principal investigator (PI) on the $3 million, five-year grant.

“We want the fellows to serve as role models in the classroom and excite those students about math and science,” he says. “We are also working to create a group of scientists and engineers who are not only competent in research, but capable of communicating their knowledge to a wide variety of audiences. [The fellows] have the content knowledge but not the pedagogical skills.”

That’s where co-PI Donna Sterling and the resident teachers come in. Prior to entering the classroom, the fellows received training from Sterling, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development and director of the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at Mason.

“There is a huge shortage of science teachers,” says Sterling. “Of those who do go into teaching, 60 percent normally leave the profession within five years. By providing support systems for these teachers, more will stay in the classroom, and that will result in better student scores.”

Mason doctoral student Prabal Saxena supervises student during an experiment. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

In addition to having access to Sterling and attending bimonthly meetings as a group, the fellows also receive a critique on their teaching methods by the teachers with whom they are partnered. At the same time, fellows continually assess the units they teach with pre- and posttesting. So in exchange for assistance with their teaching skills, such as classroom management, the fellows help the resident teachers expand their content knowledge.

Ganesan is the veteran on the SUNRISE project. Prior to joining Mason, he was involved with the NSF program in the Tampa, Florida, school system while a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida. Ganesan sees building the workforce of the future as one of the benefits of the SUNRISE project. Another benefit is providing additional resources to the public school systems.

“Every school is so different,” he says. “Some schools have many more English language learners. That affects how things are taught and how long some take.”

Turnover at the schools in terms of administration and teaching staff can also affect how productive a fellow can be. Schools are chosen for the project based on need, and NSF is specific about what kind of school can participate.

Ganesan plans to continue the project beyond its five-year NSF commitment and is already working to find future funding. He also wants to make the inquiry-based curriculum materials created as a result of the fellows’ work available to other teachers and school systems.

Mason doctoral student Prabal Saxena takes questions from the Hutchinson Elementary School class. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Some of the other experiments and learning units taught by the fellows have included observing, recording, and analyzing weather data; looking at infrared properties and how they are used in imaging; and investigating how differences in ocean salinity affect density and turn over. The fellows are also asked to incorporate their areas of research into teaching.

“This is excellent practice for the scientists and engineers,” says Ganesan of this requirement. “Having to explain your research to children encourages you to think more deeply about what you are doing and this helps in the discovery process.”

To keep his students engaged, computational sciences doctoral student Prabal Saxena created Jeopardy-style games for posttesting in the weather, states of matter, and energy units required for the Standards of Learning.

“These games were a fun way to go over all the material from each unit and are always well received by the students,” he says. Saxena also shared his game materials with other teachers of that grade.

In his second year in SUNRISE, Saxena is working with teacher Christina Fentress at Hutchinson Elementary School in Herndon, Virginia. In addition to working on labs for units that are part of the Fairfax County Public School curriculum, Saxena also tries to relate science to current events and took the Japanese earthquake in 2011 as an opportunity to discuss the science of earthquakes, as well as nuclear power plants and the impact of disasters.

“The students are excellent and easy to work with because of their endless curiosity,” says Saxena. “I’ve found the entire experience very rewarding.”

In January 2012, Ganesan took the fellows to India in a global exchange that is a new international element NSF has added to its K-12 Education Program. During the break between semesters, the fellows visited the University of Delhi where they had the opportunity to interact with Indian colleagues in their field of study. Then Ganesan took the group to visit a number of private, government-run, and rural schools in the Indian educational system.

“I want them to know how things work globally for both faculty and students, and compare the U.S. system with [systems in]other parts of the world,” Ganesan says. “It was an eye-opening experience [for the fellows] and time well spent.”

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