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Science: Not Just for Nerds Anymore

UCSB Program Offers High Schoolers Real Learning, Real Fun


If you are a House fan, you probably watch the show spending some of your time admiring the doctors’ detective work and the rest wondering what would have happened if you hadn’t majored in English, communications, political science, etc: Would you have found a way to cure a major disease, or saved the world from global warming? It’s possible.

Cat Neushul

In high school, science involves less-than-scintillating lectures (most of the time), reading books, and doing experiments where the outcome is predetermined, and the teacher can check in their answer key to make sure you got it right. In real life, however, science is hands-on and full of surprises. I’ve talked to experts on bacteria, marine life, and chemistry about their work. Not one of them talked in terms of absolutes. They talk about what they suspect, what they are going to do, and what they hope to find. It’s all a little sketchy. These scientists also aren’t the type of people who you’d find unapproachable. They surf, and shop, and question what they are doing.

Organizers of School for Scientific Thought, a new program at UCSB, hope to inspire students by letting them in on the secret that the study of science isn’t just for a select few. Elisabeth Gwinn, a UCSB physics professor and faculty sponsor of the program, said students in the program “get to learn that a lot of exciting things are going on in research right now.” The doctoral candidates who applied to teach the 112 high 9th- through 12th-grade school students who signed up for this program seek to keep their teaching relevant by talking about what they are studying right now.

The program was designed to provide benefits for both the doctoral candidates and the high school students. “We want high school students to be excited about science and engineering so that may be something they want to do,” Gwinn said. She said that the doctoral students get to practice some important skills that will help them in their careers, including how to teach. “They need to learn how to explain science to a non-expert,” she said.

Gwinn said that 140 high school students from Bakersfield to Santa Maria applied to be part of the program. The 112 students who started Sept. 19 were divided into five groups to study different topics. The topics covered in the five-week Saturday classes include infectious disease, cosmology, industrial espionage, and engineering. There’s also a course on mutants, spirals, and riots. (Check out this video about this course for a real treat.) Dan Balick talks about such things as patterns in nature, and collective motion. He starts off his video presentation by talking about a zebra’s stripes, and whether they are the same as a leopard’s spots. Then he goes on to ask whether these patterns are formed by the same mechanism. Then he talks about the process by which fish school, birds flock, etc., then he compares this to how people form a line in public. Is it the same mechanism or different?

If you’re still not on the edge of your seat, let me throw out a few more enticements. When I say that students are going to learn about infectious disease, I mean that students will talk about the swine flu, malaria, cholera, schistosomiasis (a disease caused by parasitic worm), and toxoplasmosis. It’s an infectious disease lover’s smorgasbord.

Alice Nguyen, the doctoral candidate in biology who is teaching about infectious disease, wants to get students thinking, and sharing ideas. She wants them to “learn outside the material”. She is planning on setting up a Facebook page, or other type of social networking site, to allow students to share ideas, information, video, and thoughts about the course. “Giving them space to be creative, may get them to talk more,” she explained.

One thing Nguyen emphasized was the need to make students aware of the tools modern day scientists use on a daily basis. She said that students get hung up on the idea of animal testing in the study of biology and infectious disease, and don’t realize that scientists use many other methods for conducting research. “There is a lot of fear of that,” she said. By letting students know scientists use research literature, design computer simulations, and use a variety of other methods to study a topic, she hopes to make biology accessible.

When asked about the swine flu, Nguyen said it was “a great opportunity to study a pandemic.” She didn’t suggest that I go into hiding just yet, however, because she said that “it doesn’t seem to be as big a problem as the Spanish Flu” which killed more than 20 million people.

Balick, a theoretical physicist whose course is focusing on mathematical biology, went to the Education and Outreach specialists at the California Nanosystems Institute with colleague Ann Hermundstad to propose the need for a special program for high school students. Balick said he attended this type of program at Columbia University when he was a high school student. “This was one of the major reasons I became I scientist. I want to pass that on,” he said.

There is another reason he wanted to help develop this type of program. Balick said, “I hope to pass on a keen understanding that there is no single path to success in the sciences, and that the most important thing is to pursue your passions”.

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