Prep program supplements science education for local high school students

By
Friday, November 17, 2006

“Is what you see real?”

This is the question Matthew Dallos ’07 posed to a small group of high school students on a Saturday morning in Barus and Holley two weeks ago before going on to explain how the brain interprets what someone sees, such as colors, in different ways depending on the surrounding environment.

Dallos is a mentor through the Brown Science Prep program, an optional program for ninth and 10th graders at Hope and Times-Squared high schools, which he coordinates through the Swearer Center for Public Service. The BSP aims to build on students’ science educations through hands-on activities and projects.

In 1995, the BSP replaced the Pre-College Enrichment Science Program, which catered to high school students throughout the Providence Public School District. Unlike P-CEP Science, the BSP was designed to build closer partnerships with a few nearby schools, Dallos said.

The program consists of two parts: a science component and a “college prep” component, he said.

Every week, one of the program’s 14 undergraduate mentors prepares a lesson for BSP participants. The roughly 30 high school students who attend are then divided into seven teaching groups, each of which is led by two mentors. The lessons last an hour and a half and include activities to engage the students, Dallos said.

“We want to get the kids excited about science so that it isn’t this looming, scary thing,” he said.

Recently, students participated in a lesson on forensics. After watching a clip of the popular television show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and learning about forensics, students were presented with a murder case they had to solve using the skills they had just learned. “A lot of them want to be crime scene investigators now,” Dallos said.

The mentors have also taught lessons on evolution, aerodynamics, rockets, astronomy, pollution and, most recently, cat dissection. Particularly popular were the lessons that involved “blowing things up,” said Eddie Carr, a student at Times-Squared. He did have some concerns about dissecting cats, however. “It’s going to be pretty hard to do that and keep my bagel down.”

In addition to teaching about science, the program attempts to prepare students to make decisions about college and the future, Dallos said. After their lessons, students are broken up further into “mentoring groups” of two to three students for each mentor. Though they are not trained to give specific advice on applying to college, mentors encourage students to think about the future and to consider their goals. Dallos said they also ask questions such as, “Why do you want to go to college?” “What career path do you want to pursue?” and “What do you see as a successful life?” Holding the program on Brown’s campus helps students to become acquainted with the college environment, he said.

The program provides a unique opportunity for its mentors as well, according to Dallos. The mentors learn how to write and prepare lessons that will be engaging for students, he said. The program also gives Brown students who are interested in community outreach – and science in particular – the chance to get involved in the Providence community. “Over time you realize new reasons why your work is important,” he said.

The relationships mentors build with the kids are another rewarding part of the experience, he said. Dallos remembers running into another mentor after the first Saturday of the program. “He had this huge smile on his face and he said, ‘I had such a good time today,'” Dallos said. “We think of it as giving back to the community but it’s really a give-and-take relationship.”

According to Lauren Huckaby ’09, one of the program’s mentors, the BSP is a great way to teach high-schoolers about science while learning about the Providence community. “It’s so different for these kids,” she said. “They are not as privileged as we are, but they still want to learn.”

Dallos added that interest in the program has been increasing steadily. This semester, there were more students interested in being mentors than available positions, he said. The University has also contributed. For example, the biology department donated the cat carcasses for the lesson on dissection. However, he said, it has been difficult to get the funding and necessary equipment for future lessons. “We are still working on how to access and utilize Brown’s tremendous resources,” he said.

The response from Hope and Times-Squared students has been overwhelmingly positive, Dallos said. About 100 students signed up after the program’s mentors gave presentations at the two high schools at the beginning of the year, and those who have chosen to attend are very engaged, he said.

It is still difficult to get kids interested in science sometimes, said Azizeh Nuriddin, the head of the science department and coordinator for the BSP at Hope High School. “Students are scared to admit they like science,” she said. “It’s not in style to be into science in an urban school.”

It’s especially difficult when it involves getting up early on a Saturday morning, Nuriddin added. However, the number of students attending has grown along with their enthusiasm, she said.

“The program is still in its infancy but it has a good foundation,” she said. “I would even like to see the mentors come into the schools during the students’ advisory periods.”

The high school students have many different reasons for getting involved, Dallos said. “Some come for the science and others come for the sense of community,” he said.

Sandra Rojas, a student at Times-Squared, said she enjoys the different kinds of lessons taught by mentors from the BSP. “You learn more than in a regular science class,” she said.

Other students are looking for help in specific subjects. Andre Johnson, a Times-Squared student, said he needed help in physics. For Carr, meanwhile, a future career is also a reason to attend. “I want to go into law enforcement and science will help,” he said.

Dallos recalled that when he asked the students if they wanted to have a “Parents’ Day” to show their parents what they had been doing, the response was a resounding “no.”

“The only reason I could think of for this was that this was their space and they felt ownership over it,” he said. “This was their place away from any problems or troubles.”