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Brian Barber

Brian Barber, a University graduate student and ornithologist, shares his scietific expertise with elementary students in St. Paul.

Scientists in the schools

U grad students and Bell Museum scientists team up to reach youth

By Jennifer Amie

From eNews, May 4, 2006

Bell Museum ornithologist Brian Barber would be the first to admit that the halls of St. Paul's Battle Creek Elementary School are the only place he's treated like a rock star. "When I'm walking down the hallway, kids will cut out of line to come over and give me a high five," he says. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are a big deal at Battle Creek because that's when Barber and his fellow University graduate students--entomologist Michelle DaCosta and plant ecologist Anne-Marie Hoskinson--spend afternoons at the school, helping out in the science classroom; taking groups of kids outdoors to collect plants, insects, and soil samples, and running the after-school science club.

"This is a special time," remarks fifth-grade teacher Robert Hatlevig. "The kids get to build relationships with real scientists, and they're learning that science is cool." They're also learning what it takes to become a biologist. Says a third grader named Daunte, "half of being a scientist is knowing stuff, and the other half is being good at math, good at reading, and good at writing."

The scientists' participation in the classroom has obvious benefits for the kids--but the scientists are actually students, too. They're part of a $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant to the Bell Museum that makes it possible for the placement of 12 science graduate students in four Twin Cities public schools over three years. The goal of the program is to train future scientists how to communicate with the public about scientific research.

"I've been involved in quite a few grants," Romoser says, "and this one is tops. This one has really affected the science education of all the students in the building."

"Most of us are not going to teach primary education," says Barber, "but we realize that outreach is an important component of scientific research. In general, there's a problem with the understanding of science in our society."

By watching a teacher discuss the day's weather with kindergartners or by helping third graders examine powders under a microscope, the scientists are learning how to use everyday terms instead of confusing jargon, how to get straight to the point, and how repetition and demonstration facilitate learning. These tactics, says Barber, also carry over to a university classroom, where many of the grant fellows are likely to spend their careers.

In the meantime, they're making themselves at home in classrooms with tiny chairs, fish tanks, animal posters, and reading corners. At Battle Creek, many lessons also take place outdoors in the prairie, woodlands, and pond of an adjacent regional park.

Michelle DaCosta
U graduate student Michelle DaCosta works on a field project with an elementary school student.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Hoskinson and DaCosta led a group of fifth graders outdoors to collect specimens and identify plants and animals. The group is conducting an inventory of school grounds to create an illustrated field guide, which they will print and share with the school.

On a brief walk, the students spot a crow harassing a hawk and identify big bluestem, needle-and-thread grass, white and red oak, spruce, paper birch, prickly ash, sumac, and black raspberries. They've also seen raccoons and foxes, and plenty of deer and rabbit tracks in the snow.

The scientists' passion for wildlife is paralleled by the childrens' own enthusiasm. A shy second grader named Mackayla has brought a moth and a butterfly to school, carefully pinned and mounted in a picture frame. She's eager to show them to DaCosta and to discover what species they are. The two flip excitedly through a field guide until they spot the pictures that match their specimens--a polyphemus moth and a monarch butterfly.

Learning to use basic tools like field guides helps the children build an awareness of their surroundings, says science teacher Mary Romoser. "Hopefully," she says, "this will lead them to become good stewards of the earth."

Romoser and Hatlevig both stay after school on Wednesdays to supervise the science club, which is run by the graduate students. Forty children applied for the dozen slots in the club. Last semester, club members prepared exhibits for a science fair, where they excelled in competition--each of their projects won an award. "You should have seen their smiles on the bus ride home," says Hatlevig. Some of the children wore their medals for a week. This term, a new group of students is building an exhibit for their school. It will feature a giant model of a cicada-a Styrofoam sculpture 48 times the size of the real insect. A painted backdrop will illustrate the cicada's habitat. Every 17 years, this species of cicada comes out of the ground to shed its skin and mate.

"How do they eat and drink for the 17 years?" asks a student.

"They feed on roots when they're underground," replies DaCosta. The children raise their hands to share other facts they've learned about cicadas: they have a thorax, the males sing, they have four wings, they live in different habitats, and "cicada" starts with a "c."

As the children get to work constructing cicada legs from copper tubing and stenciling veins on Plexiglas wings, Romoser reflects on the program's success.

"I've been involved in quite a few grants," she says, "and this one is tops. This one has really affected the science education of all the students in the building."