Graduate students share their expertise in local classrooms

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Elaine Seldner's fifth-grade classroom was dead quiet, and several of the 23 pupils had craned their necks for a better view. All watched intently as Princeton graduate student Kevin Forrest poured rubbing alcohol into a test tube filled with bright green liquid. Every 10- and 11-year-old awaited the promised outcome: They would get to see DNA for themselves.

Princeton graduate student Kevin Forrest and fifth-grader Scott Kelly examine the fruit flies that Forrest brought to West Windsor-Plainsboro Upper Elementary School as part of a science lesson he gave for the Scholars in the Schools program.


And if they couldn't get close enough to see the thin whitish strands of DNA floating in Forrest's test tube, they soon saw them up close by adding rubbing alcohol to their own test tubes and making the strands appear before their eyes. "Cool!" was the consensus when the students saw the results.

The rave reviews at West Windsor-Plainsboro Upper Elementary School were courtesy of a new program called "Scholars in the Schools," which places Princeton graduate students in area schools to give presentations on the topics they are studying. It is sponsored by the Teacher Preparation Program and the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning.

The program got its start when two graduate students in the English department dropped by the Teacher Preparation Program's office one afternoon to express their interest in doing something to help local schools. Local principals and superintendents matched the students' enthusiasm, telling John Webb, director of the Teacher Preparation Program, that they would love having scholars from the University come to their schools.

"We have this wealth of graduate students who are eager to do this and have an enormous amount of expertise," Webb said. "They want to get practice doing presentations of their own research. Who knows? It might actually prompt some of the graduate students to consider teaching (as a career)."

Students like Kevin Forrest, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular biology, were eager to give lessons in the subject they are studying. "Princeton is giving me a lot of intellectual opportunities, and I figured the least I could do was help the Princeton community," Forrest said.

The program was launched this winter with 25 graduate students offering to give presentations on all kinds of subjects. Science topics include "How Bees Help Farmers Grow Food," presented by Sarah Smith in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and "Fusion: What Is It and Why Should You Care?" taught by Adam Rosenberg of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. Brigitta Lee in the East Asian studies department will give an introduction to the Chinese language, and Mariah Zeisberg in the politics department will discuss whether Harry Potter is a friend or an enemy of democracy.

Local schools received booklets in late January that described the program and outlined each student's topic. The response was immediate. "Within days of the booklets arriving in the schools, the graduate students began to get calls," Webb said. Teachers contact the graduate students directly to invite them to their classroom. The Princeton students receive a $75 honorarium from the schools.

Teacher Elaine Seldner knew right away she wanted to invite Forrest to her classroom. "The minute the offer was made, I jumped on it," said Seldner, who was the first teacher to contact the program. "It's enriching in all respects. It gets the students excited about thinking, and they see that the observation we do in class is what scientists do in the real world."

Her students were eager to hear Forrest's science lesson, in which he described the life cycle of the fruit fly and showed off a little DNA extracted from frozen peas.

"The reason I'm excited is that it's really interesting doing experiments," said fifth-grader Ryan Tower. "When I grow up I want to be a lacrosse player, but if not I want to be a chemist."

Forrest introduced his topic by explaining one of the reasons why scientists study fruit flies. "By studying their immune system, we understand more about the human immune system," he said. Then came the hands-on part: Forrest produced several miniature cages filled with fruit flies. As they were passed around, each youngster used a small, handheld microscope to examine the flies.

Then Forrest unveiled the next specimen: "I call them larvae. Others call them maggots," he said.

"They look like giant rice," observed Elizabeth Wembacher. "They're microscopic," added Kate Finn. "The flies move so fast -- it's incredible," said Tower.

Forrest asked the students what they thought scientists did. "Examine stuff," answered Aaron Glenn. "Exactly!" said Forrest. He asked the pupils to examine four vials of fruit flies and record the wing shape, body color and eye color of each type. "They won't stay still," observed Marissa Peters as she worked on the assignment. Forrest sat down with a group of students to study the flies with them before reviewing the answers with the class.

Forrest's follow-up to the fruit flies -- mixing frozen peas in a blender, then extracting their DNA -- reinforced a recent lesson on evolution. "I've always wanted to see DNA, but I thought it was too small to see," Wembacher wrote after the experiment. Chelsea Cheatham penned this thought: "Today I learned how to get DNA from something like peas, and I might try it at home."

Several graduate students are scheduled to give presentations at local schools in the next few months, including Rebecca Katz from the Program in Population Studies, who will talk about bioterrorism with 100 sixth-graders, and Jayatri Das of the Department of Ecology and Evo-lutionary Biology, who will give a presentation titled "Why Are There So Many Living Things?"

The graduate students are likely to enjoy the lessons as much as the pupils. "It was a ton of fun," Forrest said after his presentation. "It's fun to try to recruit scientists. We should get them while they're young."


March 25, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 20
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