Today we welcome guest bloggers Teresa Barnett (Community Resources for Science), Kate Spohr (Berkeley Research Development Office), and Mary Wildermuth (UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology) to tell us more about the Be a Scientist program, which is supported by a Strategic Impact Grant.
SCHOOLS FUND: We know Be A Scientist is beneficial to the 7th grade students who have been able to participate. How does it benefit UC Berkeley as an institution? The undergraduate, grad student & postdoc volunteers?
BE A SCIENTIST: Each year, more than 5000 UC Berkeley students and faculty engage in off-campus service learning, university-community partnerships, and volunteer initiatives. UC Berkeley benefits from our engagement with the schools because it enriches our students’ learning experiences and deepens our connections to the communities we serve. Studies have shown that students who participate in community service during their time in college are more likely to complete their degrees, socialize across ethnic and racial lines, enroll in graduate school, and remain involved in community activism or volunteerism.
One example of Cal’s civic engagement is Be A Scientist, a successful program that is funded by the Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund with matching funding from the Berkeley Public Schools Fund. Be A Scientist engages UC Berkeley graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and upper-level undergraduates as role models for 7th graders in the Berkeley schools as they design and carry out their own individual scientific investigations. Berkeley 7th graders benefit from having individualized instruction and mentoring from enthusiastic young scientists, while UC Berkeley students and postdocs learn critical communication, instructional, project management, and mentoring skills that are essential building blocks for their future careers, whether in basic or applied research, teaching, science communication, public policy, or any number of other occupations.
Be A Scientist is a motivating experience for Cal scientist mentors. Many express how satisfying it is not only to learn how to communicate complex concepts and facts in a clear and engaging way, but also to guide young students to ask challenging questions and uncover solutions to difficult problems. Some mentors discover that teaching and mentoring recharges their enthusiasm for science, reminding them of why they got into science in the first place. The impacts of the program are often significant and life changing for young scientists. Many discover that they enjoy working with students and teachers, and some find that they are very good at it and decide to pursue teaching or related careers in science education. Classroom exposure also gives volunteers an understanding of the daily challenges teachers face, as well as the skill and intelligence that good teaching requires. These realizations can be quite eye opening, sometimes motivating mentors to investigate additional ways of connecting their science with educational and public outreach projects beyond Be A Scientist.
SF: What particular elements about Be A Scientist help set it apart from other volunteering or tutoring programs?
BaS: Be A Scientist is unique because it was developed in partnership with teachers and scientists for integration in the 7th grade science curriculum as part of the overall district redesign of middle school science teaching and learning in alignment with newly-adopted Next Generation Science Standards. The program rolled out as a pilot at one school, expanded to a second school this year, and next year will be fully implemented at all three BUSD middle schools, reaching every 7th grader across the district.
Research shows that early engagement is key to getting more students interested in science and engineering. UC Berkeley’s enrollment does not adequately reflect the ethnic diversity of California, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math. Dr. Mary Wildermuth, a professor in UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, aimed to address this problem by creating a program that would enlist young scientists as mentors, teach middle-schoolers the skills of being a scientist, engage them in scientific inquiry, and ultimately get many more of them interested in pursuing science and engineering careers.
To make Be A Scientist a reality, Professor Wildermuth developed partnerships with the teachers and administrators in Berkeley’s three middle schools, and with Community Resources for Science (CRS), a non-profit organization that has served the Berkeley schools for 19 years. Together, they developed a curriculum and program structure that would work for every 7th grade class, with tailoring for specific constraints at each school site. The program is designed so that each student is guided to develop their own scientific question, develop experimental procedures to test their hypothesis, analyze their data, and present their findings. The same Cal scientist mentor works with the student throughout the six weeks of the Be A Scientist program, allowing each student to develop a personal relationship with a working scientist. Community Resources for Science handles mentor training, program coordination, and relationship building with 7th grade science teachers, enabling real-time response to problems and constant fine-tuning of the program.
The comprehensive training and coaching that Cal scientist mentors receive is a hallmark of the program and a key reason that it is so impactful. All mentors attend a mandatory training that includes tips and tricks to communicate clearly and at grade level, strategies for how to engage with middle school audiences, and an overview of each week’s goals for the Be A Scientist program. The training program is followed by ongoing coaching by CRS staff who are present in each Be A Scientist classroom throughout the 6 weeks of the program. Additionally, Dr. Wildermuth and other UC faculty visit the classrooms during Week 2 to provide experimental oversight and guidance to the mentors, teachers, and students.
SF: Have you heard any stories from participants that have stuck with you?
BaS: The one that comes immediately to mind is by Cal grad student Jordan Axelson that was featured in a recent issue of the Berkeley Science Review:
Thinking back, did I successfully teach my students how to become scientists? In regard to technical skills like knowing the difference between dependent and independent variables, the importance of controls, and when to use a bar graph versus a pie chart, yes, I believe I did help them mature as scientists in that way. Though I would also argue that my 7th graders helped me rediscover my inner scientist too. The Oxford Dictionary defines a scientist as a person who is studying or has expert knowledge of one or more of the natural or physical sciences, but being a scientist is more than possessing a special skill set and an advanced degree. Those are simply byproducts. Working with the 7th graders reminded me that the spirit of a scientist consists of wonder, curiosity, discovery, excitement, and a desire to learn. Being a scientist is about having fun!
Teresa Barnett has been the executive director of Community Resources for Science since 2009. She leads a team of educators and scientists who are passionate about inspiring young students, supporting teachers, and connecting scientists and engineers effectively in classrooms. More than 500 Cal grad students, undergrads, and postdocs volunteer in CRS programs, engaging more than 12,000 K-8 students each year.
Kate Spohr is a research outreach specialist at the Berkeley Research Development Office where she provides a range of proposal support services, with a focus on helping faculty to develop plans and projects that expand the societal and educational impacts of their research. She co-chairs the Coalition for Education and Outreach (CEO), a network of over 300 faculty, staff, and students who work in science education and public outreach at UC Berkeley and the community at large.
Mary Wildermuth is a professor in the UC Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. She founded and directs the Be A Scientist program in the Berkeley Unified Public Schools. Wildermuth’s research focuses on developing plant breeding strategies that can weaken the effects of powdery mildew. If not controlled, powdery mildew is a fast spreading fungus that can cause billions of dollars of crop damage in California.