Campus & Community

‘Ed Portal’ builds bridge of learning for area children

8 min read

An academic gateway between University and community in Allston

When she grows up, 7-year-old Carley Daly wants to be “an animal doctor” who takes care of dolphins. As she explained her coming profession: “They’re partly scientists.”

Daly — a second-grader at the Jackson School in Newton, Mass., and a North Allston resident — is among 62 students (ages 6 to 18) enrolled in science, math, and writing mentoring sessions at the Harvard Allston Education Portal on North Harvard Street.

The “Ed Portal,” as everyone calls it, is a first for Harvard — an intentional academic gateway between the intellectual treasures of the University and families in Allston and Brighton. (Though there are only 62 students, every family member belongs to the portal, too — bringing membership to 419.)

“The idea was to form a literal bridge,” said Ed Portal faculty director Robert A. Lue, a professor of molecular and cellular biology and director of Life Sciences Education at Harvard. “Biologists would think of it as sharing a circulatory system.”

Lue and others see the Ed Portal, which is sponsored by the Allston Development Group (ADG), as one of a series of academic pathways that connect Harvard to the communities surrounding it — part of “an exciting engagement of intellectual ideas that’s at the heart of a university,” he said.

The mentoring sessions — designed to foster curiosity, and built around hands-on experiences — started in July at the Ed Portal’s one-story brick headquarters just beyond Harvard Stadium. During the academic year, it’s open from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. Harvard College students take the helm as mentors and — in a few cases — as tutors who help students with homework. The students are drawn from public and private schools in Allston, Brighton and the surrounding area; a few are home-schooled.

Students in first and second grades belong to science “clubs,” and third-graders have that option, too. In grades beyond, students get one-on-one learning sessions with their young Harvard mentors.

As bridges go, the Ed Portal is well-lit, and functional: five snug and bright mentoring rooms, one main spacious room with tables and chairs, and a bank of four big-monitor Apple computers.

A storage room nearby is full of the usual suspects, including paper, spare cables, and a shelf of biology texts. But some new gear just arrived: computer-mounted microscopes, which give students real-time lighted views of their skin and socks — or any artifact from nature.

To one side of the main room is a working replica of the Scientists’ Discovery Room (SDR), an interactive computer-based learning tool at Harvard’s Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC). The big-screen video wall and touch-screen table allow students to stop a video in progress in order to dive deeper into the details. “When students watch, they often ask questions,” said IIC senior research scientist Chia Shen, who oversaw the installation of the Ed Portal’s SDR — and whose research laboratory is further exploring interactive technology to accelerate science discovery and education.

The SDR implementation is a collaboration between IIC and BioVisions, a science visualization initiative at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that is directed by Lue.

At the Ed Portal’s SDR, students can interrupt and interrogate “The Inner Life of the Cell,” a Harvard-produced 3-D simulation of intercellular processes — tapping the “touch table” to learn more about, say, membrane proteins. The SDR also lets students browse a new maplike database of species called the Encyclopedia of Life, a self-guided tour of how life’s millions of species are correlated.

At the Ed Portal, 16 of the undergraduate mentors specialize in math or science and are overseen by Lue. Another four mentors are writing specialists, and work with Thomas R. Jehn, interim director of Harvard’s Expository Writing Program. The science, math, and writing tracks, Lue pointed out, are fully integrated.

The mentors get a stipend, but have to get through a competitive application process. There is a long waiting list, said Lue. “This is not a job for them — it’s an award.”

In the future, more mentors will be added in the arts and humanities. By the spring, for instance, a program will be in place at the Ed Portal that brings science and engineering together with the arts. “We’re growing,” said Lue, “as we adapt to the needs of the community.”

Also part of the Ed Portal’s future, he said, is a faculty speakers’ series that will bring exciting glimpses of Harvard scholarship directly to Harvard neighbors — a way, said Lue, “to bring the community into the community of the mind that is the University.”

Many of the lectures, he said, will come directly out of new General Education courses developed for Harvard College students — clever and comprehensive new ways of looking at the visual arts, history, stem cell research, and the biology of the brain.

Meanwhile, most of the students at the Ed Portal are learning lessons that acknowledge the importance of understanding the way the physical world works.

“There’s no question we feel very strongly that a well-educated citizen must have an understanding of science,” said Lue — the right grounding for making good decisions about health, the environment, and policy issues confronted by voters.

On top of that, science lays the foundation for “an enormously important growing economic force,” he said, “not only in Allston and at Harvard, but globally.”

Global forces, the future of science, and questions of educated citizenship are all slightly beyond Carley Daly now. To her, the world of science at the Ed Portal is one that tends to pop, fizz, and dazzle.

Since September, her weekly science club has done one experiment or project per class. There have been lessons on how gases exert force, how temperature influences molecular movement, how leaves change colors, and how to build your own “biome.” (Parents: A biome is an ecological network of plants, animals, and soils. Or it can be — as it was for Daly — a do-it-yourself “biome in a bag” assembled in a sawn-off soda bottle: a self-contained world of potting soil, pebbles, and grass seed.)

All of the Ed Portal’s science experiments involve safe, nontoxic explorations of the physical universe. So the supply cabinet looks like — and is — a kitchen. In the freezer last week, there were glow sticks, dry ice, and frozen egg whites. In the pantry was all the stuff you would need for low-tech chemistry and physics: salt, food coloring, borax powder, string, vegetable oil, magnifying glasses, vinegar, glue, cornstarch, crackers, and a bag of film canisters for one of the big science club hits: Alka-Seltzer rockets.

Mix Alka-Seltzer and water in a film canister, cap the canister, wait about 20 seconds and — pop! Besides getting a miniature rocket to launch, you get a handy illustration of Newton’s third law of motion.

“It explodes and goes up to the ceiling,” said Education Portal coordinator Meaghan Fay, who oversees Ed Portal activity and in her spare time keeps the pantry stocked for science. “The kids love it.”

And the crackers? Mixed with the right stuff, you can observe the magic of simulated digestion.

Earlier this month, Daly and other budding scientists at the Ed Portal heated the air inside a glass bottle, then watched a hard-boiled egg on the bottle top get sucked inside. Lesson: Nature loves equilibrium, and where a container of gases fails to match the pressure of surrounding gases, something dramatic is bound to happen.

“This is why you don’t open the windows in an airplane,” said Ugochi Nwosu ’10, a Currier House concentrator in molecular and cellular biology. “Nature does not like to be unequal.” She’s one of the Ed Portal science mentors who comb the Internet looking for cool science experiments that are hands-on, vivid, and — hopefully — a little noisy.

“They get really excited about the experiments,” said the Nigeria-born Nwosu, who grew up in New Jersey watching science on public television. The classrooms are small, she said, the experiments are participatory, and the children all get a chance to speak and ask questions.

Mentoring science club every week reminded Kipyegon “Kip” Kitur ’09 of his boyhood in rural western Kenya, when he fell in love with science and math as a playful first-grader. “I thought I could bring that passion back to the Ed Portal,” said the Adams House resident, whose concentration is chemistry.

Kitur’s favorite experiment this year was the Alka-Seltzer rockets. The first two failed to fire, he said, opening the way to a lesson in patience and confidence. “I was telling the kids: ‘Oh, this is how science is,’” said Kitur. “‘You can do it for hours without getting a result.’”

To Emma Schneider, age 7 and a second-grader at Winship Elementary School in Brighton, the coolest science so far was watching that egg get sucked into a bottle. She summed up her Ed Portal experience this way: “We do stuff.”