John Ribeiro, a ninth-grader at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS), listens in polite silence while Brian Murphy pitches him an idea for a science project.
“You could take a solar cell and focus light onto it with a lens and then hook the cell up to a circuit and see how much power you can get out of it. Do you want to try that?”
“Okay,” Ribeiro replies, a bit dubiously, as though wondering what he’s letting himself in for.
“Good, then the first thing you’ve got to do is test the focal length of the lenses.”
Murphy, a graduate student in the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences (DEAS), has been spending two afternoons a week in the classroom of CRLS physics teacher John Samp, helping students get their projects ready for the school science fair on March 8. Murphy is one of 10 DEAS graduate students currently working at the school to help teachers develop and implement educational activities that excite students about science and engineering.
The collaboration is supported by the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 Program. The aim of the program is to enable graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to enrich instruction in K-12 schools while improving their own communication and teaching skills. By bringing young, enthusiastic role models into the schools, the program will hopefully influence more youngsters to enter scientific and technical fields. The partnership between DEAS and CRLS is in its third year.
Murphy takes several lenses from the backpack he has brought with him, plugs in a clear glass light bulb, and begins showing Ribeiro how to measure the distance from the light source to the lens and from the lens to an image of the glowing filament projected on a white card.
“Try doing it with different distances, and then make a table showing all your findings. That will allow you to calculate the focal length. And remember, there’s no such thing as having too much data.”
For graduate students like Murphy, participation in the GK-12 Program is similar to having a teaching fellowship, both in the level of support and the responsibilities it entails. Each graduate student is paired with a CRLS teacher and must sign on for a one- to two-year commitment. In addition to working with students on their science projects, GK-12 fellows help teachers develop curricular activities on cutting-edge science, lend support in class, participate in field trips, and arrange for teachers to attend lectures and seminars by Harvard faculty.
The partnership between DEAS and CRLS benefits the graduate student fellows as much as it does the high school students, said Kathryn Hollar, director of Educational Programs for DEAS.
“The students and teachers get a lot out of the program, but we tend to forget that the graduate students also benefit by explaining the research they’re doing to students who don’t yet have an extensive science background, and fielding some of the unexpected, yet fundamental questions that these students have. The GK-12 fellows develop a richer understanding of their chosen field, and often return to their research labs with a renewed curiosity.”
Graduate student and program fellow Amy Jordan said, “I am providing specialized help that teachers often don’t have the time … to provide. … Having their projects taken seriously and enthusiastically approved by a Harvard graduate student seems to boost [students’] confidence.
“I am also benefiting from this involvement. Helping with Science Fair has forced me to think about science outside my own field. Working on so many different hypotheses and research methods has sharpened my own appreciation and understanding of how to formulate scientific questions and experiments.”
Murphy, meanwhile, is trying to explain to another ninth-grader, Jose Barbosa, that building his own sniper goggles as a science project might just be a bit unrealistic.
“What I can help you with is building a circuit that produces infrared light. Then if you hook that up to a webcam, you should be able to demonstrate a working night-vision system.”
Barbosa is a little disappointed that he will not be able to construct the kind of night-vision goggles he had found on a Web site. “Maybe I could just send away for them and then take them apart and figure out how they work.”
Murphy explains that the project he has in mind works on the same principle, just without the Star Wars-like headgear.
“Some kids come in and want to make something that’s way beyond what even I would be able to do,” Murphy explains later. “I try to get them to slow down and choose an achievable goal.”
Ribeiro, meanwhile, has been dutifully taking measurements for his solar cell project, but without much enthusiasm. The work seems tedious and far removed from the ultimate goal of measuring power captured from the sun. Samp approaches, makes some suggestions, and tries to emphasize to Ribeiro what he considers the most important part of doing a science project.
“What I’m really looking for is the notes you take as you’re going through the process. Whether it works or not isn’t all that important.”
Maureen Havern, a biology teacher at CRLS who serves as the school’s liaison to the GK-12 project, believes that introducing graduate students into the school has helped students and teachers in a number of different ways.
“The program hits all different ranges. Some of the students are very motivated. They come in with a great idea but they need help figuring out how to do it or what they need. Others aren’t sure what they want to do, and they need more basic help. By the last two weeks teachers are totally overwhelmed by questions and anxiety, so this is a great help to us.”
By this time, Ribeiro has left his lenses, his light bulb, and his yardstick on the bench top and has wandered over to where Barbosa is investigating infrared vision on the Internet. Barbosa has located a Web site that explains the optical principles that allow a person to see in the dark and demonstrates the technology involved. Peering at the screen, they take turns reading the text aloud and trying to answer one another’s questions.
Murphy approaches them. “So, you two want to work together on this night-vision project?”
They turn and answer almost in unison: “Yeah, this stuff is cool!”