Scientists on the Go - Led by Education Alumni Mentors

By Jen Aronoff

Deborah Baker, vice president of the Mentoring Institute of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and two summer scientists gingerly handle a walking stick.
Deborah Baker, vice president of the Mentoring Institute of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and two summer scientists gingerly handle a walking stick.
All photos by Jim Ziv

Tonia Murphy, a summer scientists mentor, points to colorful butterflies in the Notebaert Museum.
Tonia Murphy, a summer scientists mentor, points to colorful butterflies in the Notebaert Museum.

Mentor Chrissy Pattituci looks over field notes
Mentor Chrissy Pattituci looks over field notes

If you asked the 30 students in Big Brothers Big Sisters' Summer Scientists Program what they did on their vacation, the 9- to 14-year-olds would have plenty to say: With the support of local science institutions and with SESP alums as devoted mentors, the students were able to spend three days a week in July exploring everything from the soil below to the universe above — all without leaving Chicago.

Fun, learning and real-life science exploration are all part of the Summer Scientists experience, which aims to encourage budding scientists to broaden their horizons. Thanks to a grant from BP America, the program was launched this year in response to a lack of science teachers and formal science programs in many disadvantaged schools in Cook and DuPage counties.

During the month-long pilot run, participants were treated to a behind-the scenes, participatory look at science — and science careers — at local museums, colleges, laboratories and nature preserves. The students were mentored by Northwestern Master of Science in Education (MSEd) alumni and others, who eagerly joined the field trips and encouraged the kids to engage in inquiry-based investigation.

"Our mission was to provide for kids who otherwise wouldn't get much science experience," says Deborah Baker, an MSEd alum from the class of 2001 and vice president of the Mentoring Institute of Big Brothers Big Sisters (BBBS) of Metropolitan Chicago, which oversaw the development and operation of the Summer Scientists Program.

During the academic year, BBBS focuses on school-based mentoring. Many students, parents and educators served by the organization expressed wishes that programs could continue during the summer. The result was Summer Scientists, "a field trip-based experiential learning program."

To stimulate kids' interest and creativity while providing a supportive learning environment, the program combined an inquiry-based approach to science education with close mentoring relationships. The mentor-student ratio was a low 1:3, with a variety of college students and educators serving as mentors and team leaders. Baker networked through her alma mater to recruit talented, science-minded mentor candidates, finding Aviva Pearlman (MSEd03), Tonia Murphy and Chrissy Pattituci. The latter two are graduates of the NU-TEACH alternative certification program.

Students were drawn from schools throughout Cook and DuPage counties - particularly from schools where BBBS programs already operate - and came largely but not exclusively from low-income communities. Many students had minimal exposure to science. "One school had a state-of-the-art lab and no science teacher," notes Pearlman, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science at Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, Illinois.

To ensure that Summer Scientists was an engaging educational experience, program organizers selected an array of science-related sites — ranging from paleontology to optometry — and worked to provide an environment in which students could learn lab skills and science principles. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, for example, a chemistry professor and some graduate students led a demonstration, experiment and question-and-answer session.

"We didn't want it to be just a field trip with no structure," says Baker. BBBS provided transportation, food and science supplies such as binoculars and journals. What the students had to bring was imagination. According to Pearlman, they came prepared.

"Every student found at least one thing that got them thinking about what they could do in science in their own futures," says Pearlman, who is spearheading the program evaluation. "They were exposed to a great deal in a short period of time." The students inquired about subjects ranging from salary to the type of science various professions entailed.

Program staffers were uniformly impressed by the excellent behavior and high level of engagement. Baker attributes this to successful mentor-student relationships and the sort of personal attention that small group work makes possible. "The kids were very serious and interested in what working scientists do every day," she says.

Though the team behind Summer Scientists is still analyzing exactly how the program affected its participants, they believe it's safe to say that the activity-packed month boosted kids' interest and confidence. As one little girl from a school with no science program told Baker, "I learned that I'm good at science experiments."

Pearlman says she is particularly interested in what the students learned at each site, whether they gained applicable lab skills and if the program provided an appropriate introduction to science in general. Over the course of the summer she recorded the questions students asked and the responses to use the quality of the queries as a gauge the program's success.

"In most cases, the kids did a wonderful job extrapolating from the presentations," says Pearlman. "You could tell they were on their toes!"

For example, when the students were at the Garfield Park Conservatory learning how to distinguish different species, they were shown examples of dinosaurs and homo sapiens. They were told the latter was a "thinking man" — which prompted one girl to ask, "Why not a thinking woman?"

Summer Scientists 2004 was a pilot program, so a number of kinks will have to be worked out before next year. Most deal with organization and assessment. This time around, student performance was measured primarily via qualitative means including portfolio and journal analysis and mentor feedback. The students completed the program by making "expressive collages" about how they wanted to record their own learning journeys. Baker aims to strengthen the program's quantitative assessment and is working with staff and volunteers to devise ways to measure outcomes more meaningfully.

"We're committed to the idea that this is a replicable and sustainable program," says Baker. "As soon as we finish the evaluation for this year, we'll start planning for next year."

Pearlman agrees. "The foundation was laid for a unique and successful program in summers to come," she says.
By Jen Aronoff