Experimental Learning

The Chemistry Organized Outreach Program, led by Professor David Walt, aims to get high school students psyched about science

The eight students paired off in a Tufts chemistry lab, conducting an experiment to determine whether the soy in certain food products had been genetically modified. They chatted about their classes. Their instructors stood nearby, occasionally chiming in to coach them on the next phase of the experiment or sharing in a laugh.

The students on this particular day were area high school science teachers. Their instructors were Tufts undergraduates.

The teachers came to the Medford/Somerville campus for a week this summer to be trained to conduct experiments with equipment they will use in their own classrooms this year as part of Tufts' Chemistry Organized Outreach Partnership (CO-OP).

In addition to lending out state-of-the art equipment to cash-strapped public schools, the outreach program is giving Tufts undergraduates an opportunity to lead experiments in area high schools and show their younger counterparts that a career in science is within reach-and pretty cool to boot.

The inspiration for CO-OP came from David Walt, the Robinson Professor of Chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences. After being named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor in 2006 and receiving $1 million to develop curricular innovations in undergraduate science education, he decided he wanted to develop experiments for students in grades K-12, building on a program he runs with Tufts undergraduates in local high school science classrooms.

One stumbling block has been the condition of chemistry equipment at the high schools. "We kept finding high school chemistry labs full of broken or obsolete equipment, uncalibrated micropipettes and dwindling budgets for laboratory apparatus," says Walt.

To bridge that gap, Walt conceived of a lending library to provide chemistry equipment-and the associated maintenance-to schools in Somerville, Medford, Malden and Boston's Chinatown neighborhood. Some of the equipment, like the thermal cycler that can replicate DNA, is new, while some is being donated from Tufts' own labs.

The program, which began in September, is funded in part by $50,000 from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences.

Doing, Not Talking

For teachers who are eager to engender in their students an excitement for laboratory science but don't have the resources in their own schools to do so, the partnership with Tufts is a boon.

"I really want to find kids and inspire them to study science, but I need an interesting hook," says Rocco Cieri, a science teacher at Medford High School. The experiments he learned at Tufts-testing soy products for genetic modification and analyzing maternal ancestry-may just do the trick.

Amanda Tsoi, who teaches at Somerville High, says in the past she would talk to her chemistry students about genetic testing or maternal ancestry, and "it would sound like magic, or at worse be completely indecipherable. Now, "to actually have an experiment where you're doing this lab, it makes the idea more realistic," she says.

Ultimately, students also need to learn the most important science lesson of all: failure.

"In the classroom, we may do an experiment, but it's an experiment in name only. I know how it's going to end, and they know how it's going to end," says Somerville High School science teacher Chris Angelli. "It's important to show them that science doesn't always work, and that's why we call them experiments."

"Students need to be prepared for failure," says Walt. "They need to understand how to overcome that."

The program also shows high school students who don't have many role models who have attended college "that it is a path they can take," says Angelli. "There is a career they could pursue in science, and this is their first step."

Two-Way Learning

The week of training for the high school teachers was developed and led by Tufts seniors Jan Fouad, Dan Rodkey and Shrikar Rajagopal, in consultation with Walt, Meredith Knight, the coordinator for CO-OP, and graduate student mentors. They selected the labs with an eye to what topics would engage high school students.

The Tufts students "began to take ownership and make a huge amount of progress," says Walt. "There was a team of minds that were working and bringing in new perspectives and ideas to the project that I couldn't do myself."

"It drives you to do better when you have to come up with your protocols and what you need to do once you fail," says Fouad, a biology major. "It drives you to work harder and understand what you're doing more."

"It was increased pressure and responsibility, but I think it was more fun that way," adds Rodkey, a chemical engineering major.

The undergraduates said they also surprised themselves with the expertise they gained while teaching the teachers.

"You start explaining things to [the high school teachers], and it starts pouring off your tongue, and it's like, ‘Wow, that was all in there somewhere,' " says Rajagopal, also a biology major. "It felt good."

On top of the science, the Tufts students serve as role models for the high school students, answering questions about college life and making science more accessible. For the three Tufts students, who had similar introductions to science when they were in high school, they see their involvement in CO-OP as an opportunity to mentor those who might follow them into majoring in a science in college. Walt also sees it as potentially laying the groundwork for a lifetime of service.

"I think some of these Tufts students want to build on this aspect," he says. "They want to stay connected with their communities over time."

That's what Walt has done through his outreach to area schools during his nearly three decades at Tufts. He says part of what drives him is a conviction in what these young people are capable of accomplishing.

"They have a tremendous capability and capacity to absorb and learn new material," Walt says. His hypothesis: if you encourage those for whom science sets off a spark, "you'll see some dramatic results." For Walt, that's what makes CO-OP a successful experiment.

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