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By Kathy Seale and Matt Windsor  |  Illustrations by Tim Rocks

In middle school,embarrassment is a fact of life. Antonio Lewis sees it as a teaching tool. On a recent visit to Birmingham’s W.J. Christian K-8 School, Lewis selects two seventh-graders at random and calls them to the front of La’Rhonda Brown’s science class.

“You are adenine,” Lewis says, pointing to a female student. “And you are thymine,” he continues, pointing to the male classmate standing next to her. “Wherever one of you goes, the other one goes, too.” For the next minute, they parade around the room, locked side by side, while the rest of the class laughs uproariously. 

This may not be the traditional way to teach the concept of DNA codons, but Lewis, director of Hands-on! In-Class Laboratories in UAB’s Center for Community OutReach Development   (CORD), isn’t interested in tradition. He’s interested in inspiration. Lewis takes sixth-graders outside to collect soil samples for analysis and shows them how to create traps to uncover the microorganisms hiding inside. For the eighth-graders, he has devised a new microbiology course that challenges students to swab door handles, water fountains, their cell phones, and their own hands to reveal the disturbing array of bacteria and viruses surrounding us every day.  

“Many students don’t think science is relevant,” says Lewis. “I was lucky to have a high school science teacher who really got me interested in science and made it fun. And as I go out to middle schools all around Birmingham, I’ve seen that if you present science to kids as fun, that’s how they’ll react.”

Crucial Conversations

sp2013 popular3Getting kids to consider careers in math and science fields is crucial if America is to hold its place as the one of top scientific and technological nations in the world. “Compared to students in many other developed countries, U.S. students have largely lost their intellectual competitive edge in science, technology, engineering, and math fields”—a category known as STEM—says J. Michael Wyss, Ph.D., a UAB professor of cell, developmental, and integrative biology and the director of CORD. 

Research shows that science is a favorite subject among students in early elementary grades, says Joseph Burns, Ed.D., UAB associate professor of curriculum and instruction and principal investigator for the Alabama Hands-on Activity Science Program (ALAHASP). “But by the time students get into junior high and high school, it’s near the bottom.”

Students who turn their backs on math and science may regret that decision for their entire working lives. By 2014, 15 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations will require significant science, computer, and math training, according to U.S. Department of Labor estimates. To compound the problem, there is a large diversity gap in STEM fields. African Americans and Hispanics are about half as likely as white workers to hold STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. As for women, they fill almost half of all jobs in the U.S. but hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. 

Early engagement can change those statistics, however. UAB junior Tiffany Holloway first started attending CORD’s two-week Summer Science Institute after her freshman year at Birmingham’s Ramsay High School. She continued to attend the summer programs throughout her high school career. By her third summer, Holloway was working in the lab of UAB researcher Ho-Wook Joon, Ph.D., supporting his pancreatic cancer research by culturing cells and operating the lab’s dilutors, among other tasks. “I got to experience materials science and biology research firsthand, and I met really great people,” she says.

The experience “really affected” her college choice, Holloway adds. She earned an AP Achievement Award to attend UAB, which covers the entire cost of tuition. Her current plan is to pursue a master’s degree in materials science and a career in industrial distribution, a booming field.

“UAB can show students the opportunities out there,” Wyss says. “If we can expose them to the opportunities, they can do marvelous things.”

The university’s innovative outreach programs have a proven track record for encouraging more students—particularly underrepresented minorities and females—to study STEM disciplines and pursue STEM fields. Read on to discover four steps to success that UAB programs are fostering in schools throughout Alabama.

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Mr. Excitement: CORD instructor Antonio Lewis gets students psyched up about science.


Lesson One: Reinvent the Classroom

“The educational system we’ve operated under for many years is geared toward the industrial age,” says Karen Wood, director of the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative at UAB (AMSTI-UAB). “We needed a lot of factory workers who could follow a procedure. That’s not what we need anymore.”

Hands-on, inquiry-based instruction offers students their best chance at success in today’s technology-oriented world, which puts an emphasis on problem-solving skills, say UAB educators. “You have to get out of the mold of the students in rows and teacher in front,” Wyss says. He points to CORD programs such as Labworks! and GENEius, both held at the McWane Science Center in downtown Birmingham, where CORD instructors inspire students and teachers to get hands-on with science. 

On a recent afternoon, a group of middle-schoolers is learning to take the fear out of physics with an interactive lesson about roller coasters.

Students discover the power of potential and kinetic energy, along with acceleration and G-forces, by creating roller coasters out of half-tubes, marbles, plastic supports, and pegboards. They experiment with varying hill heights to balance safety and excitement. And they discover that some combinations of hills and loops cause a marble to stall, hit a support, or fly from the tube. In the process, they learn about resistance, force, acceleration, and more.

“When you teach for conceptual understanding, you have to have a lot of resources,” says Wood. That can be a problem for underserved schools, which may not have money to buy extra materials, “so we provide the resources,” she says. 

To study volcanoes, for example, AMSTI-UAB provides teachers with different substances to simulate magma and lava flow, and to represent the influences of volcanic materials on land formation. Students also explore the effects of ash fall on the temperature of the earth’s surface and examine the constructive and destructive effects of ash fall on humans, the environment, and global weather. 

AMSTI-UAB math and science specialists provide professional development and classroom support at most schools in the Birmingham area. In 2011, they worked with 43 schools; in 2012, the number increased to 80. The program has been so popular that some of the participating schools opted to buy materials and pay for training themselves, Wood notes.

Outside evaluators confirm the program’s success, and “test scores continue to improve,” Wood says. Perhaps more important, teachers report that student interest in science and math has improved as well. “Instead of the least-liked subjects, they have become the favorites.” 

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Lesson Two: Keep It Real

“Who wants to talk me through their program for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” It’s a Monday morning in Maia Lake’s robotics class at Carver High School, and CORD educator Keiah Shauku wants to illustrate the challenges facing a computer programmer. Last year, Lake’s class, trained by Shauku and other CORD mentors from UAB, pulled off a stunning upset at the Alabama Robotics Competition. In their first year of competition, the Carver students took first and third place, beating powerhouse suburban schools from around the state. 

This year, Shauku is beginning again with a new crop of students who are eager to duplicate that success. One by one, she has students get up to explain their approaches to the assigned task: Program a robot to make a PB&J. “Go in the refrigerator; take out the jelly,” begins a tall girl at the back of the room. “Your robot is now inside the refrigerator,” interrupts Shauku. “Robots are like babies; you have to be able to teach them every little step. You may know what you mean, but the robot doesn’t.”

The students are eager to show off their other assignment, this time with their own, actual robots—LEGO Mindstorms machines that accept programmed input through a computer. One student has written a program to make the robot stop when he claps. Another student’s robot detects obstacles, coming to a halt when he puts a foot in its path.

Before they enter her class, “many of the students don’t have any idea that they might be interested in robotics or computer science,” says Lake, a math teacher at Carver High who started the robotics course a few years ago. “They wouldn’t even know this is a career path open to them.” It helps to have that message come from the young undergraduates in CORD, Lake adds. “When I tell them, they don’t always listen, but they will listen to someone who is where they want to be in a few years.”

As a woman and an African American, Shauku also helps model career possibilities for the middle- and high school students she works with. “It’s so amazing when you see them buy in to the belief that there’s a future in this for them,” she says. “I’ve seen what CORD can do for the kids, but it’s also done something for me. It’s opened my eyes to the needs in our schools. I originally planned to work in computer security after I earn my master’s degree, but now I’m more excited about continuing to do what I’m doing now—using computer science to help people. I get to sow the seeds.” 

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Reaching out with robots: CORD instructor Keiah Shauku teaches high school students the language of the future.

Lesson Three: Train the Trainers

The change from lecture- and textbook-based teaching is sometimes difficult. “It’s a paradigm shift for a lot of teachers,” says Wood. “But once they see the level of thinking their children are capable of, they say, ‘I see what it’s doing for my kids, so it’s what I need to do.’” 

In traditional math classes, students are often left to ask, “Why do I need to know this?” The Greater Birmingham Mathematics Partnership helps teachers answer that question. The partnership includes UAB, most area school systems, Birmingham-Southern College, and the nonprofit Mathematics Education Collaborative. 

“The teachers have to be secure in their own content knowledge,” says John Mayer, Ph.D., UAB professor of mathematics and director of the GBMP. So the partnership works to develop teacher leaders through its Mathematics Support Team Teachers and Professional Learning Communities and other courses each summer. “On average, the more you know, the better your students do,” Mayer says.

sp2013 popular4Teacher training is key to all of UAB’s outreach programs and is a primary component of UAB’s ALAHASP, which provides support and instruction for K-8 educators in about 50 school systems statewide. One of ALAHASP’s key components is “Private Eye,” a deceptively easy process that uses everyday objects and inexpensive observational tools—jeweler’s loupes, which fit snugly over one eye and magnify objects up to five times their actual size—for a cross-curricular science lesson. Proponents say that it unleashes the genius in everyone. 

In training sessions, teachers learn to use the loupes to help their students experience the scientific method firsthand, says Beverly Radford, who, along with Joan Dawson, is an ALAHASP co-director. 

Exploratory questions encourage thinking by analogy and hypothesizing. If students are using the loupe to study a lamb’s ear leaf, which has a distinctive fuzzy white coating, the first question the teacher asks—“What does this remind you of?”—encourages thinking by analogy. The list of objects students might assemble may include a blanket, insulation, fur, or grandma’s hair. “Most creative breakthroughs are through analogies,” Radford says. 

The second question—“Why is it like that?”—leads to hypotheses, such as, “I wonder if the wooly white covering is camouflage, or helps to protect the leaf from cold, insects, or excessive moisture?” Then the teacher asks students how the hypotheses can be tested and guides them through simple experimentation. 

ALAHASP further involves educators through its academy for K-6 teachers, says Burns. “We develop strong teachers who promote science and who work with teachers in their schools and in their system so that it continues over time.”

Lesson Four: Prime the Pipeline

“If our children are going to be competitive, we have to have teachers who are well prepared to lead students,” Wyss says. “One way to do that is to interest STEM majors in STEM teaching careers.” 

Each year, CORD's Collaboration for Excellence in Science And Math Education (CESAME) offers about 25 undergraduate students from UAB and other schools the opportunity to test-drive a career in STEM education. Initially, CESAME recruits are paid to work with middle or high schoolers during hands-on, inquiry-based STEM activities. 

CESAME participants who decide to pursue a teaching career receive a full scholarship to obtain a UAB master’s degree in science education, thanks to a $1.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation. They also have a guaranteed job offer waiting at an area school upon graduation, along with ongoing teaching support from CORD and UAB faculty as they begin their careers. 

Several participants are pursuing a second career, as well. Leah Carmichael, the first student to receive scholarship support in the CESAME fifth-year program, earned bachelor’s degrees in math and accounting at UAB in the 1990s. She eventually decided to go back to school to become an elementary school teacher, but a friend convinced her to take a look at high school science. 

Carmichael found out that the CESAME program at UAB would let her get an undergraduate degree in biology, followed by the master’s in science education. “It’s a great program,” she says. “As a single mom, going back to school was a struggle, and this support has really helped. I tell all my friends in education classes about it.”

CESAME students “experience what life is really like in the classroom, making sure this is a career they want,” Wyss says. “Some get very excited about it and will be great teachers; others find out it is not for them and go on to do other great things. That’s OK—to be really successful at this job, you’ve got to love it. ”

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