Emory Report
August 6, 2007
Volume 59, Number 36

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August 6, 2007
Lipstick and hip-hop bring lessons to life in public schools

By Carol Clark

Stella is in 10th grade. One day, she picks up her boyfriend’s chemistry book and casually flips through it. Inside she finds a love note addressed to him and signed with a pink lipstick kiss. It’s not Stella’s shade. How can she determine whose lipstick it is?

“High school students really get a kick out of solving this case,” said Pat Marsteller, director of the Emory College Center for Science Education.

The hypothetical case study was developed through one of CSE’s enrichment programs for Atlanta public schools, which help teachers make math and science lessons come alive in the classroom through problem-based learning. In the case of Stella and the lipstick, for example, the high school students learn how to use chemical processes to separate and analyze the materials in the lipstick sample, then compare the analysis to tubes of lipstick.

“The idea is to use stories to connect science and math to something in kids’ lives that they care about. That gets them interested in the subject,” Marsteller explained.

After several years of helping the inner-city high school known as the New Schools of Carver beef up its math and science curriculum through such problem-based learning case studies, the CSE launched the Emory-Carver Partnership in January to expand problem-based learning to all disciplines. The initiative, funded by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation’s “Pathways to Success” program, has expanded Emory’s relationship with Carver, to include enrichment, tutoring and mentoring activities for both Carver teachers and students. The goal of Pathways to Success is to raise academic achievement levels of Carver students, along with their college enrollment rates, over the next two years.

During a week-long intensive institute this July, Carver teachers and Emory graduate and undergraduate students paired up to design the revolutionary cross-curriculum case studies, geared specifically for Carver students.

“No one has done cross-curriculum problem-based learning at the high school level before,” Marsteller said. “If this works, it’s going to be the coolest model going of how to keep high school students engaged and improve their academic performance.”

One proposed case study, titled “Drop that Beat,” requires students to defend the assertion by some critics that hip-hop music is the downfall of today’s youth. Students will learn to identify and analyze poetic elements in musical lyrics, create technical documents for publication and respond critically in written and oral forms.

Demetri Sermons, who teaches English at Carver, developed a hypothetical case study called “Who’s Moving?” It proposes that the city is redeveloping the area around the New Schools of Carver, creating million-dollar condos, parks and community centers. The caveat: Carver would become a private school reserved mainly for incoming families, while vouchers would be provided for the existing residents to move to another part of the city. The case study turns the classroom into a law firm that is working for residents opposed to the redevelopment plan. The students use statistics and other evidence to prepare oral and written arguments to make their case.

Sermons said he based the case study on some gentrification that is actually happening in the neighborhood, although he added the more dramatic elements. “The kids see townhomes and things popping up around the school and they talk about it,” he said. “They’re very territorial about where they belong and where they come from, and I think they’ll get into this activity.”

The cross-curriculum case studies are being refined in preparation for a pilot program at Carver this fall.
In addition to enhancing Carver’s curriculum, Marsteller said the CSE programs are vital to the enrichment of Emory faculty and staff. “We want Emory professors and students from different disciplines to participate and see how they can make a difference. We want them to feel that they have an obligation to go beyond the University’s gates to educate and improve their communities, no matter where they may go in the world.”