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Released April 15, 2004

By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG -- The last thing most sixth-grade science students at Carver Elementary expect when Meagan Williams opens up her portable "lab-in-a-box" is to play dress up.

Williams, a graduate student in biology at The University of Southern Mississippi, hands someone a lab coat, a business suit, and a baseball uniform. Then, Williams asks them to identify the scientist. When the class finds out the answer is "all of them," the proverbial light bulbs go off around the room.

"In this kit, students are taught about the scientific method. Then they're asked to think of all the ways the people they're dressed up as might use science in their jobs," Williams said. "They learn how all of us use science in our everyday thinking. You can really see how excited the kids get when it all starts to click."

This role-playing exercise is just one of many creative examples of how a partnership between area school districts and Southern Miss graduate students is reaching students in the sciences.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) program enables graduate students in the sciences to serve as resources in K-12 schools.

As part of the program, the graduate students conceptualize and construct portable science kits, called "labs-in-a-box." These kits, about 25-30 in all and tailored for different subject areas, can be checked out by participating teachers or taken into classrooms by the graduate students.

In all, 12 Southern Miss students working in five content areas - biology, chemistry/biochemistry, polymer science, geology and mathematics - serve six school districts: Hattiesburg, Forrest County AHS, and Lamar, Forrest, Covington and Jefferson Davis counties.

"The graduate fellows work with area teachers about 20 hours each week," said Dr. David Hebert, GK-12 project coordinator. "That involves about 10 hours of prep time and about 10 hours of teaching." The partnership works so well, Hebert said, because it allows teachers to help graduate students with the teaching aspect, and it allows graduate students to bring enhanced science content into the classroom.

One of the more popular boxes with students is the DNA test kit. Using gels, buffers, droppers and synthetic DNA, high school students can do makeshift forensic tests right in the classroom. "It's a neat test for kids who might have seen these kinds of things on TV crime shows," said fellow Austin Trousdale, a Ph.D. candidate in biology.

Dr. Susan Ross, director of the Center for Science Education at Southern Miss, said the labs-in-a-box can be used as early as kindergarten but are geared toward fifth-graders and up. Through the NSF grant, the university was able to purchase four laptops with Flex-Cams and projection units. Using a software program called Starry Night, these projection units can cast constellations on the classroom wall, Ross said. "The GK-12 partnership has been met with nothing but enthusiasm from all the students and teachers who participate," Ross said.

Collins High School principal Charles Lewis said the program gives teachers an additional resource to tap into by networking with the graduate students, who help plan activities, projects and other assignments. One of those teachers was Addie Coleman, who teaches geometry at Collins.

Using one of the math kits, she had students plan a trip to faraway cities using maps, graphing paper and atlases. After plotting courses to their selected destinations, students then wrote stories and produced brochures about the cities they "visited."

"We've done about five or six projects using hands-on applications in class. All of them were designed to help students see how math can be used in real life," Coleman said.

For Williams, her aim as a graduate fellow is similar. Teaching at both Bassfield's Carver Elementary and Prentiss' J.E. Johnson Elementary, Williams strives to reach kids who've never had a "formal introduction to science." Whether it's planting seeds, experimenting with liquid nitrogen or creating silly putty and slime out of polymers, she has one goal in mind with students.

"My main thing is to 'wow' them with science," Williams said.

For more information about the GK-12 program, contact Ross or Hebert at (601) 266-4739.


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM