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Summer science academy pairs grad students, poor children

This summer, Donald Doehrer learned to identify the skull of a predatory animal by its fang-like front teeth and eye sockets in the front of the head.

He is now eager to explain how to extract DNA from a banana at home, and how many cells are in the human body (several trillion)—concepts he learned while attending a free science class at the Children’s Aid Society’s Frederick Douglass Campus.

But the highlight of the summer class, according to Doehrer, 12, who is entering seventh grade at PS 165, was viewing worm cells through a high-powered microscope for the first time.

“They showed us how small cells could be,” he said. “They said each worm had 90,000 to 100,00 cells. I didn’t think it was possible, then they turned up the magnification on a worm, and we could see all these little white blotches that were cells.”

Doehrer is one of nearly 600 students from low-income backgrounds receiving supplementary science and math instruction this summer from scientists who are being trained as teaching fellows by the New York Academy of Sciences. The program, which places city graduate students in the sciences in after-school and summer classrooms administered by the Department of Youth and Community Development throughout the city, just completed its pilot year.

The students, most of them minorities who hail from neighborhoods with high poverty and low high school graduation rates, are attending summer programs run by the Children’s Aid Society and other community organizations that offer free day- and after-school care. The NYAS offers several three-week long science curricula and a math curriculum, which are taught by different scientists at each site.

The new program comes at a time when the federal government has made improving science education a priority, particularly for states vying for second-round Race to the Top money.

But in New York City, as in many school districts, science education has not received the same emphasis as math and reading. The city’s elementary and middle school progress reports do not take science proficency into account, and teachers say the quality and depth of science instruction vary widely from school to school.

It is particularly important to give students opportunities to explore the sciences in the middle school years, according to the NYAS program coordinators, when they still have time to apply to selective high schools with a strong science program.

“This is about making [the kids] comfortable putting on the identity of a scientist, giving them confidence and a sense of leadership that is really important to building young scientists,” said Meghan Groome, the director of K-12 education at the NYAS. “The students are going home and saying, ‘Look what I can do.’”

She said supplementary science is particularly important for minority children, who are under-represented in advanced high school and college math and science programs. The classes, which take place in community centers and some school buildings, require no application of the students and are funded by private donations and receive in-kind support from the DYCD. The summer classes are also funded by a consortium of foundations called Summer Matters.

“The kids don’t choose to come here, they are not self-selecting,” Groome said. “That means this really has to be focused on introducing as many kids as possible to the joys of science and math. It’s all set to the New York State standards, and it’s all hands on and inquiry-based. We push the mentors to get out of their habit of lecturing and get the kids talking and doing.”

As the final week of science classes wrapped up for students from the Children’s Aid Society on Tuesday, they used deductive reasoning to analyze the skulls of bobcats, raccoons and other wild animals and deduce the animals’ eating habits.

“This one is clearly a hunter,” said Dr. Maria Lokshin, leaning over a group of three students trying to guess the identity of one fist-sized skull. “Think of the closest thing to a sabertooth tiger that is alive today.”

“Cats? A panther, a cheetah?” Tahtebah Gonzalez and Khala Antoine, both 13, guessed, before writing “cat-like animal” on the accompanying worksheet.

Antoine later said she was familiar with fossils and animal skulls from her classes during the school year, but that this class was a valuable supplement to that knowledge. “I’d forgotten some stuff, but it really brought it back to my head for next year.”

Lokshin, a biologist, said she is hoping her classes not only brought students’ prior science knowledge into sharper focus, but also demystified the process of scientific investigation that scientists go through. “When you get to do experiments and figure out what the scientists actually do, the subject is a lot less scary,” she said. “It’s about walking away thinking this is a fun subject.”

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