Neighborhood Schools Program teams up with Project Exploration for science education

University Communications

The classroom watched silently as the group of sixth-grade boys slid oversized white gloves on their hands and gathered around what looked like a slimy, whitish-blue bean bag.

“Can anyone guess which animal this heart comes from?,” one of the boys asked. The audience, full of parents, siblings and teachers, called out guesses until one parent got it right: “A sheep’s heart?”One sixth-grader named Cameron grasped the scalpel and carefully began severing the sheep’s heart. Some parents and siblings squirmed, covered their mouths or looked away. But Cameron’s classmates continued to stare at the dissection until he held half of the organ in his hand and a fellow classmate held the other. He then explained the physiology of the human —and sheep—heart.

Cameron was one of 14 students at Ariel Community Academy Elementary School to participate in Brothers4Science, a 10-week pilot program to introduce boys of color to biology, chemistry, engineering and other scientific disciplines.

The program is a joint venture between Project Exploration, a nonprofit organization that develops youth science programs, and the University of Chicago Neighborhood Schools Program, which connects schools in the surrounding community to University of Chicago students to enhance public education.

The Brothers4Science program helps fill a gap that many institutions in the Neighborhood Schools Program can’t. “For the last 10 years, science has not been a No. 1 priority for elementary schools because it’s not represented on tests in a way that forces schools to address it,” said Shaz Rasul, director of the Neighborhood Schools Program. “Plus, there aren’t enough teachers who feel comfortable teaching science, a second-tier subject, and that’s not in anyone’s interest going forward, since the science, technology, engineering and math fields are going to be the job creators.”

The Brothers4Science students met with UChicago scientists and students in different fields each week to do hands-on experiments, like constructing buildings of paper to understand architectural engineering, creating magnesium combustion and learning about its affect on vision, and, of course, learning to dissect a sheep’s heart.

On Monday, May 7, the Brothers4Science program at Ariel Community Academy culminated with a student presentation to families and teachers on what they had learned during the program. “We learned that if the heart is too surrounded by fat it could fail, so you have to prevent fat from forming,” said George, a sixth-grader who helped with the heart dissection. “You have to eat things like oatmeal, not fried chicken, and exercise. That’s how you prevent having a bad heart.”

Brothers4Science also was offered to students at Mollison Elementary School and Emmett Till Elementary, two other schools in the Neighborhood Schools Program network. The program is a spinoff of Sisters4Science, an afterschool program for middle-school girls. Each year, 75 to 100 girls from schools near the University participate in the program, many of whom go on to other Project Exploration programs, such as immersive out-of-state field programs, summer-long service-learning docent opportunities at local museums, daylong conferences on health and science, internships in real science labs, and more.   

“Parents, students and school leaders saw the success of Sisters4Science and the things students were able to do in the program that were different from what they do in school science,” said Kathleen St. Louis, Project Exploration’s senior director of programs. “One thing we’ve heard from teachers, not just science teachers, is, ‘I can’t believe the change I’ve seen in this particular student, and I know it’s attributable to the Sisters4Science program.’ ”

The hands-on approach has successfully allowed the Brothers4Science and Sisters4Science programs to reach students who might not otherwise be pegged as having an interest in science. The program targets students who are often written off as too rambunctious to be good students. They may not have the highest grade-point averages or test scores, but their teachers have picked up on a curiosity or energy that lends itself to an experimental class. Project Exploration works with teachers to find these students and get them to commit to coming once a week.

“This program put the joy of science into the hearts of these young men,” said Judith Shelton, Ariel Academy’s. “I saw the essence of what brings people into the field—making it accessible to young people.”

The Brothers4Science program is also trying to tackle a larger challenge: African-Americans are abysmally underrepresented in scientific fields. Only 2 percent of doctorate degrees in the physical sciences were awarded to African-Americans, according to estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences (“Expanding Underrepresented Minority Participation: America’s Science and Technology Talent at the Crossroads”) found that while African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics comprise 28.5 percent of the U.S. population, these groups represent only 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in the science and engineering workforce. Although science education and careers in science represent a path to achievement, participation in science by minority youth and girls remains remarkably low, despite decades of science education programs aimed at leveling the playing field (“Into the Eye of the Storm,” The Urban Institute).

The key to changing these statistics is exposure. “Science in elementary school is often very theoretical, and the students in our surrounding communities may not have real examples of other scientists in the neighborhood,” Rasul said. “But in this context they can talk to a real person, hear how that person went from being 12 to being a scientist, and see themselves as scientists too.”