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Javits Works: Scientists-In-Schools (THPWinter06)

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Javits Works:
The “Javits Works” column is designed to showcase success stories and research-based best practices from the only federal program that supports gifted education, the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program. The Javits Act funds the work of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented (NRC/GT) and 28 additional research projects, reaching gifted and talented students and teachers in over 20 states. This article offers a glimpse of the research and purpose of the NRC/GT; look for articles featuring individual Javits grant projects in future editions of THP.

Providing Kids with Challenge in Science:

Dorothy A. Sisk, Ph.D.
Lamar University, Beaumont,TX

Three large yellow school buses pull into Lamar University, in Beaumont, Texas, at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. Sixty 8th grade kids tumble out for a quick breakfast, followed by two hands-on seminars in Science hosted by professors from the geology, physics, biology, and chemistry departments. In small groups of 20, the students participate in two 90-minute labs designed to hone scientific research and inquiry skills. Their Science teachers work side-by-side with the professors to extend the lessons and learning into the regular classroom. As students enter a geology professor's laboratory, they are presented with an over-arching inquiry question as a starting point: What are the Earth's plates, where are they, and what do they do?

Scientists-in-Schools (SIS) is a five year collaborative Javits project between Lamar University and Beaumont Independent School District (BISD). SIS integrates teacher training and accelerated/enriched science experiences for underrepresented and underserved students with a focus on inquiry. The project incorporates Saturday seminars and summer courses for the students, as well as professional development for their teachers to support connections to the classroom.

The project is designed to engage and challenge students from backgrounds frequently underrepresented and underserved in science programs. Student participants are selected for their interest and aptitude in science, but also because they are low income, minority scholars who are frequently underrepresented in the field of science. Criteria used for student selection include grades of B or better in Science, teacher nomination, interest and enthusiasm for Science, and willingness to participate in Saturday seminars at Lamar University. Each year, new groups of sixty students in grades 8 and 10 are identified to attend a three week summer residential program at Lamar University, in which they take two science courses and one elective. The focus is on leadership and ethical decision-making involving real-world problems. Similar groups of students are also identified as a control group each year, to allow comparison of outcomes based on participation or non-participation in the SIS program.

On the Saturday described in the opening of this article, students use a model of the earth's tectonic plates constructed with lasagna noodles and a modified Science Exemplar lesson to investigate what happens when two of the Earth's plates shift. To prepare, students read about Alfred Wegener, a scientist who hypothesized that at one time all of the continents were one land mass. Wegener's theory of Pangaea suggests that today's continents once fit together like a puzzle which slowly drifted apart to produce the geographic features we recognize today.

Today's investigation focuses on plate tectonic theory. Students are exploring the possible outcomes when two of the Earth's plates meet. Prior to the lab, teachers pre-cooked lasagna so that the noodles would be flexible, but not completely cooked, and placed them in plastic bins with 2-3 inches of water. Using this inexpensive model, students can manipulate the "plates" and record their findings. The professor, a geologist, uses the following questions to frame student inquiry: If the continent is on top of the plate, what would happen to it as one plate moves against another? As you work, think about how other land forms that you've seen or read about might be the result of moving plates on the Earth's surface.

During the inquiry activity, the students explore the basic problem, "What could happen along the fault line where two tectonic plates meet?" They use key terms such as hypothesis, data, observation, theory, and conclusions, both in conversation and in their lab report. They are given a worksheet providing the basic structure of components to include, but the inquiry is primarily guided by students' own explorations, questions, findings, conclusions about cause-effect relationships, and further questions.  Although they work in small groups, each student is responsible for recording his or her own observations and writing a lab report.

As the lab activity progresses, the students identify the characteristics of geological processes, events such as earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain building, and land forms that result from plate motions. They use their skills of observing, predicting, recording using words and drawings, and communicating to expand their understanding of geology.

The comments of one of the teachers capture the teacher/student interaction of the Saturday lab:

The students noticed that the plates might slide under each other (subduction) or scrunch up to build mountains. As they talked about their findings, I was able to identify the different levels of Science concepts of the students, and that provides me clues for follow-up in the classroom, such as tracking real-life events of volcanoes and earthquakes, or constructing geologic timelines. 

Project SIS outcomes include increases in science achievement and number of completed science courses for participating students; the percentage of low income, minority students identified as gifted and talented; high school graduation rates; and students applying to colleges or universities selecting science as a future career choice.

All of the first group of sixty 10th grade students attending the summer residential program in 2003 graduated from high school in 2005; took four or more courses in Science; and applied to colleges and/or universities; and 52% indicated a career choice in Science. On the Stanford 10 Achievement Test in Science, 80% of the experimental students scored at the 13 grade equivalent, in comparison to the control group, in which 60% scored at the 13 grade equivalent. Figure 1 summarizes additional results from the project.

(JANUARY 2003 - MAY 2005)

  • 300 high potential minority underrepresented 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students have been identified.

  • Significant growth in achievement (Stanford 9 & 10 in Science) has been realized, with an average increase of the experimental group of l.5 for year one, l.6 for year two, and l.8 for year three. The control group's growth was 0.6 for year one, l.3 for year two, and 1.1 for year three.

  • In 2005, all 60 of the experimental group graduated from high school, enrolled in a Science course each year, applied to colleges and universities, and 52% identified Science as a career focus.

  • 25% of the students have been recommended for the gifted and talented program as gifted students in a specific aptitude (Science).

  • Two units - Aquatic Science and Environmental Systems - have been developed by writing teams including both teachers and scientists.

What have we learned about providing kids challenge in science and attracting diverse learners to the field of science?

  • Work as a team with teachers, parents, and the community.
  • Value and respect the talents and abilities of individual students.
  • Provide active learning based on Science concepts and standards.
  • Provide role models in Science who have a passion for their subject.
  • Relate the study of Science to the real-world.

Scientists-in-Schools is enabling teachers to see the "greatness" in their students, but most importantly SIS is enabling the students to see the "greatness" in themselves, while providing them with advanced content in Science and the tools to find and develop confidence in their own strengths.

Websites for building enthusiasm for Science:

Websites for extended content in Science:



Standards Icon ColorThe information contained in this article aligns with the following Gifted Program Standards:

Curriculum and Instruction (2, 5) and Student Identification (2, 4).

Click here for a complete copy of the Standards (PDF).


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