1998-99 CUOS K-12 Education Outreach Program Progress Report

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I. Science Clubs III. Career Clubs
  A. Program Description and Goals   A. Owen School
  B. Peace Neighborhood Center   B. Slauson Middle School
  C. North Maple Estates   C. Pioneer High School
  D. George School    
  E. Community Church of God IV. Technology
  F. Owen School   A. Owen School
  G. Lessons Learned from Science Clubs   B. Coalition Web Site
II. Mentoring Programs V. Research Experiences for Teachers
  A. Program Description and Goals   A. Things We Learned
  B. Chapelle School   B. What Comes Next
  C. Pioneer High School    
  D. The Neutral Zone VI. Conclusions and Recommendations
  E. HOPE Program    
  F. Serendipity Reading Clubs VII. Appendix A. Organizational Chart
  G. Camp Discovery   Appendix B. Partners List


The National Science Foundation Center for Ultrafast Optical Science (CUOS) mission for K-12 and Community Outreach is to support community coalitions in order to provide educational opportunities in science and mathematics for all children. Our programs are, in the end, aimed at producing more scientists and engineers, particularly from underrepresented minority groups, so we must begin by thinking about the reasons why we do not have them now.

There will always be a tiny pool of well-qualified minorities available for graduate and professional schools to fight over; we do not see our purpose as becoming better fishers in this pool. Rather, we wish to enlarge the pool, which has several implications: we must work with K-12 children and teens to see that they get prepared for our later recruitment, and we must address all the factors that affect that preparation. These would include—surely among other, unstated influences—poorly equipped schools, under-trained or poorly motivated teachers, ineffective instructional methods, lack of support for learning at home, poor student motivation, cumulative skill and knowledge deficits in higher-grade learners, and the narrow horizons and lack of confidence that can choke off ambitions prematurely.

None of these factors is under our control, and not all of them are even amenable to our influence. Moreover, none of these potential problems, it is important to emphasize, can be fixed quickly or easily. They must be chipped away at, repeatedly, consistently, and with increasing skill—we hope. They can't be fixed by an outside do-gooder, either. Only people with a real stake in the outcome, working together cooperatively and over a period of several years, will be able to make measurable change. This is why, if we want to approach factors under someone else's control, we must move in with them, figuratively speaking, and become insiders. We cannot make them change—and cannot even influence them from the outside. As collaborators, though, we can help them through a process of analyzing how they might do things differently and can support them in doing so. We can only offer programs that they also see the importance of, that they can come to believe in strongly enough to adopt as their own. When that happens, we can move on to a new area of the community to start the process over again.

The CUOS mission for K-12 and Community Outreach is to support community coalitions in order to provide educational opportunities in science and mathematics for all children. Our outreach goals for children are to

  1. promote systemic educational reform by helping communities build coalitions to leverage and link science and mathematics educational resources and career information for all children;
  2. ensure all children have access to hands-on and discovery-based learning experiences promoting scientific and mathematical literacy; and
  3. provide all children opportunities to explore careers within science, mathematics, technology, and engineering fields.

More important than these goals may be the means by which we pursue them—building learning community coalitions. We are convinced that a breakdown in community is a common root for a host of problems, such as dysfunctional families, overburdened and ineffective schools, poor student motivation and achievement, and the psychological isolation and anomie that lead to violence. Rebuilding community, therefore, can be expected to relieve all these symptoms and to bring people together to focus on and address the needs of their youth.

Our children suffer particularly from this breakdown: many have only one parent, few siblings, little or no contact with extended family, severely curtailed informal socializing (yes, we mean "play"!), and rigid age segregation in schools, churches, and child-care arrangements. Because they don't play outside with neighbors every day as we did, they have problems with physical fitness and they miss out on a lot of socialization. (We may have spent more time arguing over the rules than actually playing, but that's how we picked up "conflict resolution" skills.) Because they have few or no siblings and are confined to spending time only with age-mates elsewhere, they miss out on the opportunity to give and receive the kind of informal mentorship we Baby Boomers could take for granted in our larger families. Because their parents are so busy working and their older relatives may live hundreds of miles away, they just don't get the amount of adult contact and guidance they need.

Children simply do not have enough human connection—people to listen to them, to read to them, to converse with them, to pass on games and other child lore, to suggest creative or productive cures for boredom, to teach them life skills such as cooking and household jobs, to assist them in exploring their world and picking up an experiential knowledge of "everyday" science, to simply care about them. This must be why we hear over and over and over from our outreach volunteers that they feel their most important accomplishment has been to touch, to play with, to converse with, to serve as role models for the same children over an extended period. Children are hungry for relationship—and that craving takes precedence in their hierarchy of needs over any academic learning we may want for them. Once they have such relationships, they are open to other input—but not before or in the absence of that human connection.

While we have, in the past, stressed the need for more adult contact for children, we have come to realize this year that the community of children themselves must also be rebuilt. A generation of "day-care" children has little unstructured time and few healthy opportunities to develop leadership skills. Our elementary-school-aged science and technology "wizards" have demonstrated to us how resourceful children can be in one another's learning. They derive real, if unquantifiable, benefits from being teachers—just as "big" brothers and sisters always have. Their sense of empowerment and responsibility could easily spell the difference between wandering through or purposefully planning their lives. The next step will be to formalize cross-age mentoring among younger children just as we have between college and high-school-age young people.

Yet another factor that forestalls or short-circuits the career planning of young people is their pervasive sense of victimhood: too many act as if they are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. That is to say, they often do not "act" at all, feeling powerless to affect their fate. An important and intended consequence of our hands-on science programs is to turn children into actors. By observing processes and intervening in them to affect outcomes—applying the Scientific Method by theorizing and then trying to validate theories through experimentation—children are also absorbing the whole notion of cause and effect. They are learning that they can do things that will change outcomes. This realization and the sense of empowerment it engenders are vital to their ability to plan and take charge of their lives.

We are often asked whether we think that all our "science play" programs are having any worthwhile consequences. We believe that this question rests on the unspoken assumption that the only worthwhile outcomes are higher science achievement test scores. While we hope for those, we assert that changed attitudes—about what science is and who can do it, about the ability to control one's own destiny—must come first and may be even more important to the process of enlarging the pool of potential scientists.

Another aspect of our work that we do not stress enough is its real and intended effects on our volunteers and coordinators, who benefit in ways they may not expect. We have goals for these young adults, as well. We want to encourage University of Michigan (UM) students to be involved in their community, to acquire leadership and community development skills, and to experience making an important difference in others' lives.

"Community," after all, cannot be a one-way relationship; in coming to care about their children and to feel a part of their community, volunteers find an emotional home and a network of friends themselves. The experiences and beliefs developed by their work with us will have an impact long after they have left Ann Arbor. We hope they carry a sense of empowerment and responsibility, a commitment to community service and to societal equity, and an advocate's role with them as they become employees, parents, and community leaders. In the long term, this may be our most important outcome of all.

As a community with disparate elements working in concert, we are all happier and more productive. Learning community development is the kind of systemic change we are after, as well as the evidence we look for in evaluating our programs. We know this works.

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