The New Curiosity Shops

Using pasta, Play-Doh, and shoebox surgery, professors and students are sparking children's interest in science.
June 1, 2004

Science is really funny, observed a boy in Liane Carahasen's fourth-grade class at Hillandale Elementary School in Durham. He giggled at the "oops" moment when he accidentally tore the adding-machine tape he was to scroll out for the experiments. With considerable laughing and excited chatter, he and his fellow students were spreading out a dozen or so tapes across the floor of the school cafeteria. Their stated scientific objective: to predict how far rubber-band-powered toy cars would travel along the tape with a given number of winds of the rubber band.

Another boy decided that science could usefully be observed from many perspectives, even upside down. He allowed the rubber-band-powered car to zip backward between his feet, bending over for a topsy-turvy view of its rapid departure.

Science can also surprise, as discovered by those who miswound the rubber bands and were startled to see their cars whiz away in the wrong direction.


Mixing it up: Pratt senior Venkatesan shapes an instructive eruption with a baking-soda-and-vinegar volcano, below; chemists-in-training at Lakewood Elementary School, far left; professors Schwartz-Bloom, foreground, and Halpin at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, center. Photos: Les Todd


And, perhaps most important, science can inspire big dreams. Just ask the girl who announced confidently amid the creative cacophony that she plans to go to Duke and study "trees and flowers and those things up in the sky that are, y'know, like computers." (Later, she decided they were satellites.)

While to an outsider it might seem that confusion reigned in that cafeteria, to Carahasen the experiments were a successful exercise in a hands-on approach to discovery known as "inquiry-based learning." Her training in applying the technique enabled her to roam the room--observing, asking questions, making suggestions, and gently guiding the learning process. An alumna of Duke's Teachers and Scientists Collaborating (TASC) training program, Carahasen, like hundreds of other teachers across North Carolina, has learned to use this inquiry-based approach to involve children, not only in science, but also in the scientific process itself.

Led by Gary Ybarra, an associate professor of the practice of electrical and computer engineering in the Pratt School of Engineering, and Dave Smith, program director, TASC is a good example of the ways in which Duke's faculty and staff members (and, in some cases, students) are increasingly lending their time and expertise to meet the challenges of K-12 science education. Their involvement stems from the recognition that American schoolchildren are not receiving the kind of creative teaching in science, technology, and mathematics that inspires students to enter those fields, much less to excel in them. The result of this educational neglect, they say, is a nation at intellectual and economic risk.

The latest comparative international analysis by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study ranks the U.S. nineteenth in mathematics and eighteenth in science among nations. The U.S. ranks just below Latvia in math and below Bulgaria in science--not a particularly respectable niche for a country that considers itself a scientific and technological superpower.

And the latest internal report card also gave the American school system low marks in science and math teaching. As part of "Looking Inside the Classroom: A Study of K-12 Mathematics and Science Education in the United States," published in May 2003, experts observed a representative sample of 364 science and math lessons in kindergarten through twelfth grades across the country. They also interviewed the teachers to understand the teaching philosophy behind those lessons and the source materials used. The authors concluded that, "Overall, 59 percent of mathematics/science lessons are judged to be low in quality, 27 percent medium in quality, and only 15 percent high in quality." As a result, said the study, "the nation is very far from the ideal of providing high-quality mathematics and science education for all students."

For Ybarra and other Duke faculty members, a key to improving science and math education is developing materials that engage students and training teachers to use them. "Children have a natural affinity for plants and animals, and they also have a natural curiosity," Ybarra says. "If this curiosity is sparked, encouraged, and nurtured in a nonthreatening way, the children develop confidence and independent thinking. That's what we're trying to promote, and, at the same time, increase their appreciation for an understanding of scientific principles." In addition to rubber-band racecars, TASC provides kits that allow children to experience the life cycle of butterflies, the mysteries of dirt, the invisible magic of magnetism, and the physics of roller coasters.

Besides breaking through to students to pique their interest in science, the program has "broken the logjam for the school districts that have joined the partnership," says Smith, TASC's director. "North Carolina has been trying to reform its science education for years," he says, through a program called Infrastructure for Science Education. "And most of the school systems are eager to go forward, but reach an impasse when they have to come up with the money to buy the kits, the time to train the teachers, and the mechanism to refurbish and distribute those kits. We gave them the solutions to all three problems."

Another Duke faculty member offers another solution--one that got its creative spark from the students themselves. Eight years ago, as part of her sabbatical activities, Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom, professor of pharmacology and cancer biology, tried out the idea of teaching science through pharmacology in Myra Halpin's chemistry class at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. "I told the students that, when I was in high school, we learned about oxidation as the reaction that caused rust. Then I told them, 'Today, I'm going to tell you about how methamphetamine kills neurons. And it's all an oxidation reaction.' They were glued, just glued. And when the bell rang, they didn't get up. They kept asking questions. And Myra said to me, 'Shelly, I think this is going to work. I've been doing this for twenty-seven years, and I have never had them not get up when the bell rang.' "

Close observing in class: Techtronics program coordinator Paul Klenk employs rolled newspaper

 Close observing in class: Techtronics program coordinator Paul Klenk employs rolled newspaper "towers" to test super-skyscraper's strength at Rogers-Herr Elementary School


This realization inspired Schwartz-Bloom and Halpin to launch the Pharmacology Education Partnership (PEP), which teaches basic scientific concepts like acid-base chemistry and the structure of neurons using examples that fascinate teens: the chemistry of cocaine, how drugs pass through membranes, and how nerve gas wreaks havoc on neurons. They have developed high-school teaching modules with such alluring titles as "Acids, Bases, and Cocaine Addicts"; "Military pharmacology: It takes nerves" (about the biological effects of nerve gas); and "Steroids and athletes: Genes work overtime." They made these teaching modules even more compelling by creating a dynamic PEP website that, besides the lessons and online tests, features vivid computer animations, including chemical reactions and cell structures and processes.

Another key to PEP's success is creating lessons that involve many traditional disciplines, Schwartz-Bloom says. "Pharmacology is a naturally interdisciplinary approach to science, and K-12 education is crying out for interdisciplinary approaches to teaching. Our modules do just that. The module on nerve gas includes not only the biology, chemistry, and physiology of these compounds, but also the cultural and historical background. I weave into the module accounts of the gas attacks on the Kurds in Iraq and the recent nerve-gas attack in Japan."

Over the next five years, TASC will hold inquiry-based learning workshops for thousands of teachers from across North Carolina, and will refurbish and sell the program's learning kits to the state's schools. And the PEP program has offered teacher workshops at Duke and at meetings of teachers' associations and is now reaching out across the country to train hundreds of teachers, via a two-way videoconferencing system at the science and math school.

Schwartz-Bloom says she believes that the rigorous scientific assessment of the PEP program will lead to its broader influence in the educational community. "We are probably the only program in the country doing large-scale testing of the students in the program--4,000 in all--to really quantify that the pharmacology-based approach works."

In an article in the November 2003 Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Schwartz-Bloom and Halpin reported the results of this careful design and an analysis of the first stage of the program. Their design involved first selecting fifty teachers for initial training in using the lessons they developed. They then randomly divided the teachers into two groups. Half took a weeklong training course at Duke in the summer of 1998 and then, when the school year began, started to apply what they had learned. The other half continued teaching using their normal approach. At the end of the school year, the researchers asked both sets of teachers to give their students a standardized test on their knowledge of biology and chemistry.

"The key to the study," says Schwartz-Bloom, "was that we tested all fifty teachers' kids the first year--the twenty-five teachers who got the materials and the training, plus the twenty-five teachers who were in the wait-listed control group." During the second summer, the control-group teachers were trained, and they taught using the new methods throughout the next year. Then their students were tested, yielding a comparison of the same teachers' effectiveness before and after PEP training.

"We got a great 'dose response effect,' which is what we always look for as pharmacologists," says Schwartz-Bloom. "The more modules the students used, the better they performed in biology and chemistry. And the biggest surprise for me was, when I looked at the educational research literature, we outscored all the other programs, in terms of the magnitude of changes. We were far above the level that is considered an excellent result, in terms of the effect of our program." Schwartz-Bloom and Halpin are now using more concentrated workshops, as well as distance-learning technology to train the teachers, and they are currently testing 16,000 students across the country.

Both programs have benefited from an unusually wide range of funding sources and logistical support. PEP received a $1.5-million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and TASC is funded by a five-year, $5.3-million grant from the National Science Foundation. TASC also benefits from donations by GlaxoSmithKline of warehouse and teacher-training space and shipping costs for the science kits.

But TASC and PEP are not the only Duke programs designed to make a significant impact on the way science and math are taught in grades K-12. Ybarra has also launched programs to involve Duke engineering students in the classroom as "teaching fellows." In the Math Understanding through the Science of Life (MUSCLE) program, a dozen Pratt School undergraduates spend ten hours a week at Lakewood Elementary and Rogers-Herr Middle schools delivering hands-on lessons with their partner teachers. In the Techtronics after-school enrichment program, Pratt undergraduates give students at Rogers-Herr experience in building devices such as "Mars-roving" robots, AM radios, balsa-wood bridges, and heart monitors.

A recent Techtronics session might have been titled "Lights, Camera, Surgery!" The session, in which the middle-school students performed "laparoscopic surgery" on shoeboxes, exemplifies how immersed students can become in its projects, says Paul Klenk B.S.E. '01, now a graduate student who coordinates the Techtronics program. For the session, Techtronics mentor Emily McDowell, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering, had adapted a real-life training technique for medical students to give the Techtronics students a taste of what's involved in performing the remote-control surgery. While "ewwwww!" was the squeamish reaction to images of real surgeries shown in the introductory lecture, it quickly gave way to triumphant "yeahs!" as the students mastered their simulated surgical tasks.

To operate on their shoebox "patients," the students were given webcams, flashlights, and actual laparoscopic surgical forceps--basically tiny clamps on long stalks, operated by trigger-like controls. After inserting the instruments through small "incisions" in the boxes, the students were challenged to loop small rings over nails, remove beads from a curved hook, transfer plastic foam balls from one glass to another, or grasp toy piglets and drop them into a cardboard corral. The neophyte surgeons had to perform these tasks while peering at computer screens showing webcam images taken though small openings in the boxes. The only light source inside the box was a flashlight aimed through another opening.

"I see dead people," joked one student as his partners on the surgical team maneuvered the camera, flashlight, and clamp to clasp a piglet. "Over, over, over, over," chanted another student, coaching his surgeon partner. "Left, left, left, left. No, no, no, no." A third student decided that her team members' success as surgeons demanded a moment of fame. So, she turned the webcam on her partner for an impromptu interview. "What do you think of Techtronics?" she asked. The interviewee responded with a grin and a feigned swoon of delight.

The students' engagement and enthusiasm is one of the program's most effective teaching tools, Ybarra says. "I really marvel when I see a student eager to use a measuring tape or some other device that extracts a quantity, and I see them doing it with a smile on their face. They're not doing a worksheet, but something meaningful and engaging. If you ask them if they like math, they'll probably say no. But there they are, doing math, not even consciously aware that they're learning new math concepts in the process."

Both MUSCLE and Techtronics have attracted critical support from foundations and from the university. Their attractiveness stems, in part, from the way in which they are deeply intertwined with Duke's educational mission. Pratt engineering students involved in these programs attest both to the effect they are having on the middle-schoolers and the effect the program is having on them. Says Duke senior Aruna Venkatesan, who works in the MUSCLE program, "We show them how they can use math and engineering principles in practical ways. We let them build bridges with materials like pasta and Play-Doh so they can figure out by trial-and-error what works and what doesn't. I've seen that over the past year the students have really started to enjoy math. Also, since I know Spanish, I can talk to the ESL students, to involve them with the group and give them confidence. One of the ESL students that I work with is really good at math, and so I talked to him about how he could use math in a career like designing cars."

Klenk, the Techtronics program coordinator, says he is delighted at how much technology the middle-school students absorb. "In building heart-monitor circuits with the kids, we were explaining technical concepts like high-pass filters and low-pass filters; and we were never sure how much of that they understood," he says. "But then at the end of the unit, we had them explain their heart monitors to their parents, and this one boy, Dustin, just nailed it. He explained parts of the circuit board that we had no idea he understood, and we were so excited that he'd remembered all that."

By the same token, the Duke students participating in MUSCLE and Techtronics learn valuable communication skills, says Ybarra. "Oftentimes, the ability to communicate technical ideas is considered as important as the content itself, in engineering. Because if you can't express your ideas in writing and orally, then the ideas are locked inside of your mind."

Adds Klenk, "If you can explain gravity or any other basic scientific principle to a middle-school student in a way that they can understand, that really helps you when you're trying to explain your research to somebody outside of your field who doesn't understand what you're doing."

Developers of both TASC and PEP have found that there is art as well as science to their pedagogy. "It is a real art to develop the skills to foster inquiry-based learning," says TASC's Smith. "A teacher doesn't just learn how to do it in a workshop and then go out and do it. You learn a little bit, practice, come back and learn a little more, then practice some more. It's a real skill for a teacher to look at a student and understand what they understand and what they don't, then set up a challenge for them to work through and take more personal responsibility for understanding."

Smith emphasizes that fostering inquiry-based learning means teaching the teachers to work in a very different way from the classroom paradigm. "We would have teachers come back after their first experience and say, 'My class didn't seem as focused at first, but, you know, it turned out there was more learning going on.' And that little epiphany was really important for us to get them to have."

In her outreach efforts, Schwartz-Bloom, like Ybarra, sees a mission that is central not only to science education, but also to the future of American science itself. "We're training the next generation of scientists," she declares. "The U.S. ranks in science and math in the lower third in the world of Western countries. With all our resources and money, we should be up at the top. But we do miserably in science education. If we want the nation's research to move forward in the next generation, we need to make sure that those kids now in K-12 not only understand science but are excited about it."