Doctoral students mentor young scientists in after-school program

STEM after-school program expands to all Kyrene middle schools

Designing a model of an artificial heart comes naturally to sixth-grader Emma Baier.

“I come from a long line of surgeons, including my grandfather,” she says. “I’ve always found the science of the human body fascinating. I’ve learned components of the heart that I didn’t even know existed.”

Emma is one of 250 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the Kyrene School District who participated this semester in hands-on experiments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The program was part of a three-year K-12 education project, funded by Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) and facilitated by Arizona State University’s Graduate College. Classes were taught by ASU doctoral students in partnership with Kyrene teachers as part of the ASU Citizen Scientist-Engineer @ Kyrene after-school program.

Classes explored such diverse topics as microbiology and genetics, bacteria and immune systems, electricity and energy, photosynthesis and nutrients, and earth’s geological processes. Then students used their newfound knowledge to create artificial heart models, imagine how alien life forms would exist in different environments, design water filtration devices and use hydrogen fuel cells to power toy cars.

In three years, the program has expanded from 78 students at one school to 250 students in all six Kyrene middle schools. The after-school classes have become wildly popular with both students and their families.

“This is the kind of learning that we dream about,” says David K. Schauer, superintendent of the Kyrene School District. “The kids are so excited about what they are doing – they go home and talk about their learning, they share the experience with their parents. This after-school program is really how all our school days should look.”

“This program demonstrates one of the many ways in which ASU strengthens its communities,” says ASU President Michael Crow. “We are motivating the next generation of innovators by collaborating with middle school students and their teachers. We are enhancing learning opportunities for our K-12 students by engaging our science and engineering doctoral students in creating innovative ways to enhance interest in the STEM fields.”

Bringing the excitement of discovery to the classroom is one of Science Foundation Arizona’s goals, as well as preparing tomorrow’s workforce with the technical and analytical skills for 21st century jobs. Doctoral students who are funded by SFAz as Graduate Research Fellows learn to be citizen scientist-engineers who can effectively communicate their science and engineering knowledge and research to K-12 students, their families and their communities.

“We created the Graduate Research Fellows program with the idea of attracting the best students in the country to Arizona,” says William Harris, president and CEO of Science Foundation Arizona. “These GRFs are every bit as good as students that are going to MIT, CalTech or Stanford. We wanted them to be involved not just in research, but also to give something back to the community and be involved in K-12 education. We’re very proud of them.”

Graduate Partners for Science Education (GPSE), founded and run by graduate students in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, taught Energy Meets Biology classes as part of the project. “In all of our experiments we stressed the importance of energy in biological systems,” says Brett Seymoure, GPSE co-president. “Whether it was energy acquisition or a behavioral mechanism aimed at maximizing energetic benefits, the underlying theme was energy.”

Kyrene students studied the rate of photosynthesis under different wavelengths of light, tested for macronutrients in certain foods, and conducted a predation experiment using scorpions, crickets and black widow spiders.

The semester culminated in a poster presentation in which 750 family and community members viewed the results of experiments and projects. Guest speakers included Craig Barrett, retired CEO of Intel and SFAz board vice chair; William Harris, SFAz president and CEO; David K. Schauer, superintendent of the Kyrene School District; Ev Michell, principal of Kyrene Centennial School; and School Board President Michelle Hirsch.

Kyrene district schools that participated this year are Akimel A-al Middle School, Altadena Middle School, Aprende Middle School, Centennial Middle School, Kyrene del Pueblo Middle School, and Kyrene Middle School.

The ASU Citizen Scientist Engineer @ Kyrene program is directed by ASU principal investigators Andrew Webber, professor of molecular and cellular biosciences in the School of Life Sciences and associate vice provost of graduate support programs in the Graduate College, and Tirupalavanam G. Ganesh, assistant professor of engineering education in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, within the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

The program is funded by Science Foundation Arizona, and supported by ASU Light Works, the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and the School of Life Sciences.

Participating this year were: (Kyrene teachers) Kimberly Cobb, Kathy Couey, Tara Dale, Jeff Garrett, Terri  Golembewski, Jon Hutman, Terry Lastovicka, Melissa Melville, Myriah Monson, Carl Nasuta, Marty Starling; (SFAz Graduate Research Fellows) Bridget Cavanagh, Andrew Darling, Denzil Frost, Brian Johnson, Daniel Rosenbalm, Jordan Yaron; (GPSE doctoral fellows from School of Life Sciences) Stephanie Bittner, Tara Crawford, Scott Davies, Sisi Gao, Nicolas Lessios, Russell Ligion, Jeremiah Molinaro, Travis Rusch, Jesse Senko, Brett Seymoure, David Schwake, Patricia Trubl, Melinda Weaver; and (Volunteer ASU doctoral student) Christina Foster.