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Week of 22 January 1999

Vol. II, No. 20

Feature Article

BU's Learning Resource Network gives high schoolers a glimpse of higher education

By Eric McHenry

The math- and science-oriented activities coordinated by BU's Learning Resource Network bring several thousand gifted junior high and high school students to the University every year. By exposing so many college-bound scholars to the BU campus and faculty, Cynthia Brossman says, the office better known as LERNet actually helps the University net talented undergraduates.

"Along the way, we've captured students' names and addresses, then searched the University databases to see if any of those students actually ended up at BU," says Brossman, LERNet cofounder and assistant director. "What we've seen is a regular correlation between students attending our events and students enrolling at the University."

That's an ancillary benefit of LERNet, of course. Its first purpose is to enrich the education of young people who've shown interest and aptitude in math and the sciences. Along with LERNet Director Robert Devaney, CAS mathematics professor, and faculty members from participating departments, Brossman coordinates several annual, semiannual, and periodic activities such as Math Field Days, Saturday science labs, and the Pathways Program for young women interested in science. She says she would like for LERNet, in addition to its management of these activities, to serve as a University clearinghouse of sorts -- a place where other members of the BU community can turn for consultation and guidance when setting up outreach programs for precollege students.

Necessity is the mother of the network. Most of the events now coordinated through LERNet preceded LERNet itself, which nominally has existed for less than a year. The initial success and ensuing growth of those events, Brossman says, made a headquarters for their planning and oversight necessary.

The first Math Field Day at BU took place in November of 1992. Noting the paucity of field trips and out-of-the-classroom activities available to high school math students, Devaney dreamt up the day as a way of applying a National Science Foundation grant he'd received to integrate the study of fractals and chaos theory into secondary school curricula. He recruited Brossman, then an administrative assistant at the Science and Mathematics Education Center, to help organize it.

"It was election day, and it was pouring rain," Brossman recalls, "but the event was a success." So many people attended the next year's Field Day that Brossman has scheduled two in each subsequent year. They now bring between 900 and 1,000 high schoolers annually to the GSU's Metcalf Hall.

The Pathways Program is similar in many respects to Math Field Days: it is an outreach program that targets talented high school students -- in this case, young women interested in the sciences. It was the brain-child of a BU faculty member -- Elizabeth Simmons, CAS associate professor of physics -- and it taps the BU faculty for resources. Over the course of two days in April, researchers from the University and other area institutions give talks, lab tours, poster presentations, and group discussions that elucidate their work in the sciences. Brossman estimates that between 100 and 150 women from the Boston area -- industry professionals, college and university faculty, research staff, graduate students, and even undergraduates -- are involved in the event.

"We try to focus not just on women's experiences as women in these areas," says Simmons, "but on their experiences as people who enjoy working in technical fields. And it's been very gratifying seeing the girls respond to that."

The program, she adds, is full of participatory activities that grab students' interest in a way textbooks can't - "precipitating some DNA out of solution, looking at brain matter under a microscope, or figuring out how some magnetic puzzle works at the physics table. We make it as hands-on as we can, because that's what students connect with best. It helps them to realize, Oh, I could do this. This could be a part of my life."

The popularity of Pathways and Math Field Days has motivated Brossman to develop additional outreach events devoted to particular disciplines. In cooperation with the Institute for Academic Advancement of Youth at Johns Hopkins University, BU has hosted programs with themes such as Exploring the Mind and Brain and Exploring the Quantum World for talented eighth and ninth graders. This year, ENG Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Herbert Voigt has enlisted LERNet to coordinate the inclusion of about 100 area high school students in the annual Biomedical Engineering Day, traditionally a program for undergraduates only. Brossman is also spearheading a series of Saturday morning laboratories for high school science students, occasional off-campus field days at sites such as Hyannis and Portland, Maine, and "some sort of program involving computers."

"That's our mission," she says, "to make the University's resources available to high school students and to encourage them in their academic pursuits. Secondarily, we aim to create a favorable impression and perhaps attract those students to our campus."

For more information about LERNet, call 617-353-7021 or e-mail cab@bu.edu