In the public schools


Vartan Gregorian School students Tessa Principe, June Plasson, and Shafideen Odunewu examine an eyeball from a dogfish specimen during a dissection project led by a Brown graduate student.

Credit: Richard C. Lewis

‘Real science and how it’s done’

Fourth and fifth graders at a Providence school get up close with a dogfish – and with Brown graduate student mentors who bring a passion for science to the classroom through the GK-12 project.

By Richard C. Lewis  |  February 23, 2010  |  Email to a friend

PROVIDENCE – More than a dozen fourth- and fifth-grade students at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School on Providence’s East Side filed into a classroom adorned with posters of marine life, watercolor prints strung on a line like laundry, and two aquatic tanks stocked with tropical fish. Brown graduate student Jaime Toney waved the students over to a table. On it lay a fish more than two feet long, upside down and lifeless.

“OK,” Toney started. “Today we are dissecting a dogfish, which is a…?”

“Shark,” the students answered.

Graduate student Jaime Toney, left, asks students to compare the fish’s organs with their own.: Graduate student Jaime Toney, left, asks students to compare the fish’s organs with their own. Toney explained that the students would be leading the dissection themselves, each group supervised by an adult. As she handed out worksheets, she asked the children to pay special attention to the fish’s organs and compare them with their own. With gasps of horror and nervous giggles, they made their way to the tables.

This was no typical science class at Vartan Gregorian School, and Toney is not your typical science teacher. She is part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) program, GK-12, that pays for graduate students to share their burgeoning knowledge in science with pupils from kindergarten to 12th grade.

The program at Brown is in its third year, funded by a five-year, $3 million NSF grant. Seven Brown graduate students spanning the fields of biology, computer science, engineering, geology, and physics fan out to four Providence-area schools to supplement the standard science curriculum. (A similar program, ARISE, funded by the National Institutes of Health, brings Rhode Island high school biology teachers to Brown to learn innovative approaches to teaching science and to design and refine lesson plans to meet national science education standards.)

The five-year NSF initiative is chiefly about communicating science, said Karen Haberstroh, assistant professor (research) in engineering and the GK-12 program’s coordinator. The graduate students who participate are immersed in scientific research and want to share their passion with a younger generation. “I have seen a huge change in excitement [among the young] students and in their potential to be scientists,” Haberstroh says.

Lucien French, grade 4 (left), and Roanna Lange, grade 5, work on their fish.: Lucien French, grade 4 (left), and Roanna Lange, grade 5, work on their fish. At Gregorian School, a buzz of curiosity resonated in the classroom. Fifth-grade teacher Christine Mendonca cut into the dogfish’s stomach, and the three students at her table leaned in closer to get a better view of what was inside.

“It looks like ketchup and mustard,” said a fifth-grade boy, Shafideen Odunewu.

“Goop,” said June Plasson, a 10-year-old fourth-grader.

“Brown refried beans to me,” said Tessa Principe, also 10.

Later, the students said they learned more about the anatomical similarities between a dogfish and a human than they would have from a textbook. “Not every fifth-grader gets to dissect a shark,” Plasson pointed out.

Hands-on learning led by practicing scientists such as Toney is crucial to engaging students in the sciences and to introducing the field as a possible career, said Vartan Gregorian’s principal, Colin Grimsey. “These are Brown students. Right off the bat, you have some of the best role models in the world to look up to,” he said. “You can see this is real science and this is how it’s done.”

Catherine Helgerson, a parent who came to help with the dissection, said she believes the Brown students are able to make special connections with the young pupils. A former schoolteacher, Helgerson credits the GK-12 program with helping improve the interest and the grades of her children, Emily and Nicholas.

“When they have Brown people come (to their class), they’re so excited,” she said. “They know exactly what has happened. Whatever (the Brown students) are doing, they’re making it interesting enough for my kids to come home and tell me.”