October 20, 1997
Volume 50, No. 9
All children are natural scientists when they enter kindergarten or first grade, said cell biologist Robert DeHaan, a faculty member in the medical school. "They're all very eager to answer questions, and they try to construct explanations of the world around them."
Yet, he asserted, by the time they get into the fourth or fifth grade in American schools, most children stop being curious. And by the time elementary school has ended, 90 percent say science doesn't interest them at all.
"What that means is we in the education community, and society at large, are turning kids off," DeHaan said. "It isn't that they naturally lose their interest in the world-it's that we're squelching that interest."
With this in mind, DeHaan met with teachers at his grandson's Atlanta elementary school back in 1994 to discuss the possibility of bringing scientists into classrooms for teachers to use as resources. Thanks to teacher feedback, that original idea has evolved into an innovative science teaching program called Elementary Science Education Partners (ESEP).
This program-a partnership between the Atlanta Public School System and a consortium of the city's higher education institutions-provides hands-on science materials and assists kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers in the use of inquiry-based instruction. The materials are distributed in the form of kits, and teachers are trained at two-day workshops before they receive new materials.
The ESEP program also teams teachers with college students who serve as science partners. Each science partner is paired with a teacher for an entire term and commits to six hours a week in the classroom.
Science partners are recruited from the Emory, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia State University and Atlanta University student bodies. Emory students can sign up through the departments of biology, physics, chemistry, psychology and anthropology, and they get two credits for each semester of work.
Other components of the program include the involvement of university-based scientists who serve as consultants, an assessment project aimed at measuring the impact of the program on both students and teachers, and a program of participatory reform to ensure that public school teachers and administrators are actively engaged in the design and implementation of this science education reform effort.
In September 1995, after a one-year pilot project, the ESEP program received a $5.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation. With funding from this and other grants, the program should expand to all Atlanta elementary schools within the next five years. ESEP is currently looking for additional Emory faculty and scientifically trained staff to become mentors or consultants for teachers.
Maria Perez, an Emory senior with a double major in psychology and art history, served as a science partner for three semesters and is currently co-president of ESEP's student council. While her participation may have influenced the attitudes of many elementary students toward science, it also has had a dramatic impact on her own career goals.
"I was actually pre-med until my second semester, sophomore year," she said, noting that she had planned to be a pediatrician. Although she "always kind of wanted to be a teacher," she thought that might come later because teaching didn't seem to offer much in the way of monetary reward.
Perez said her second semester with ESEP-working in a fenced, windowless, inner-city school with a guard at the gate and a locked front door-inspired her to change both her major and her career goals. Now she's going to pursue a master's degree in teaching.
"The teacher would tell me that the kids couldn't sit in their seats knowing that I was coming that day," Perez said. When she entered the room, "all their faces lit up, and it was just amazing to walk into that.
"It really touched me," she added. "I really felt like I made a difference to an entire class and not just a few students here and there. I could see that they were learning and that I was helping them learn to love science.
Return to October 20, 1997 Contents Page