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Urban Fellows Project wins $1.6 million NSF grant

Money sends grad students to teach science at local schools

Eric Crandall (GRS’07), a doctoral student in the BU Marine Program, teaches a zoology lab at Chelsea High School. Photo by Cynthia Brossman

Most teachers frown on projectiles flying around their classrooms, but Jon Celli actually encouraged physics students at Newton South High School to shoot marbles out of a makeshift spring-loaded cannon. “They got a big kick out of calculating where the marble would land based on the angle of the cannon and the laws of physics,” he says.

Last year Celli (CAS’02, GRS’06) took part in Project STAMP — Science, Technology, and Math Partnerships — a BU program that pairs graduate fellows with teachers in public schools in Boston, Quincy, Chelsea, and Newton.

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 (GK-12) program, Project STAMP has placed 46 BU undergraduate and graduate fellows in high school physics, biology, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics classes in the past four years. In a separate GK-12 initiative at BU, the GRS Center for Polymer Studies has supported 20 graduate fellows and 8 undergraduates in a similar endeavor.

This fall, thanks to a $1.6 million NSF grant, the two initiatives merged into the BU Urban Fellows Project, which in the next five years will send more than 60 BU students into Boston-area schools. The grant enables the program to strengthen its fellowship training courses, including eight-week summer workshops, and make them available to more graduate students. The fellows will continue working 10 hours a week in classrooms for an entire school year, assisting teachers with lectures, labs, and curriculum planning.

The NSF initiated the GK-12 project in 1999 to improve the quality of science education at the primary and secondary level. “The goal of the project is to stimulate kids’ interest in science,” says Bennett Goldberg, a College of Arts and Sciences physics professor and chair and co–principal investigator for the grant with H. Eugene Stanley, a fellow CAS physics professor and director of the Polymer Center. “The middle and high school students and their teachers benefit from the research expertise of college students — students who will go on to become physicists, chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and engineers,” says Goldberg. “BU students are also role models for the kids, dispelling the notion that people who are interested in science careers are geeks.”

The teaching experience also helps make the participating fellows more productive graduate students, says Cynthia Brossman, director of the BU Learning Resource Network, which runs the program. “They develop an understanding of public high school education," she says, "and being able to translate esoteric research concepts into simple terms makes them better educators if they decide go into academia.”

Celli is interested in a career in particle physics research, but he doesn’t rule out teaching at the college level. He considers his fellowship experience invaluable because he was able to see firsthand what most interested the students. “Teaching also gave me a different perspective on my own laboratory work,” he says.

Michael Coles (ENG’07), a Ph.D. student in computer engineering, was partnered with teacher Darren Wells’ eighth grade general science class at the Timilty Middle School in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood last year. Coles says that he and Wells worked well together, often giving each other nonverbal cues when a lesson was fascinating the students — or boring them. And it’s obvious, Wells says, that Coles “got a good perspective of what learning is like at a younger age.”

Although no marbles flew around their classroom, Coles and Wells involved their students in another low-tech experiment: building sundials using plastic coffee stirrers, paper plates, index cards, protractors, rulers, and compasses. “They gained an understanding about basic geometry and shadow effects,” says Coles.

Coles’ presence was certainly appreciated by eighth grader Naomi Escalera. “There were a lot of kids in my class and only one teacher,” she says. “When Mr. Coles came in, he helped a great deal. He is smart and helped me get smarter.”

Brian Fitzgerald can be reached at bfitzger@bu.edu.