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Mentors seek to boost passion for the sciences

Each week, students devote hundreds of hours to teaching and mentoring Providence's disadvantaged youth. But these volunteer tutors are facing a problem that even the most dedicated may be ill-equipped to handle.

National science tests show large disparities in Rhode Island, according to the most recent report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Test scores are much lower among minority students than among white students, among disabled students than among non-disabled students and among impoverished students than among the better-off. Rhode Island tested lowest in the nation in 2009 for Hispanic eighth graders, with 74 percent scoring "below basic," according to the report.

The low scores show that "the need to transform our schools is urgent," Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Gist said in a Jan. 26 Providence Journal article.

Though the report provided numerical evidence of the score disparity, attempting to close the gap is not a new goal for many Brown tutoring programs.

"There are so many factors involved," said Karen Haberstroh, assistant professor of engineering and director of STEM Outreach, a group that sponsors a number of programs bringing together graduate students, high schoolers and their teachers to boost students' understanding of and passion for science.

In one of these programs, Physical Processes in the Environment, graduate students bring weekly inquiry-based science lessons to students in Providence elementary and high schools. Graduate students work "very intensively" to change students' perception of science and to encourage them to pursue it at the university level, Haberstroh said.

Last summer, the program sponsored a collaboration between Providence teachers and University professors and graduate students. They worked to develop class curricula making science more appealing and interactive. The teachers "have been fantastic and so supportive" of the program, Haberstroh said.

"The students are very behind the grade level," said Daniel Prinz '13, a student mentor for Algebra in Motion, a Brown organization that tutors Hope High School students in math. "That's why we go out everyday."  

Katie Williams '11, a student mentor in Brown Science Prep, said that students struggle the most with basic concepts. For example, she said, they understand physics but struggle with the math behind it, such as unit conversions, fractions and ratios. But "they'll pick it up once they are taught," she added.

Williams called her experience with students "mentoring, with science on the side." The program is a science enrichment program in which Brown students mentor and tutor roughly 40 to 50 underprivileged students from several high schools in Providence. Each mentor is assigned to five high school students, teaching basic science skills and helping with schoolwork or college preparation.

The group also plans "exciting lessons," such as chemistry of food or a Halloween lesson on sugar, Williams said. She added that the program tries to expose high school students to college life and promote the study of science at college. They hope to present students' science projects at the Science Center this semester to "make more people at Brown know more about it and (get) the word out about what we do," Williams said. "It is a fulfilling and wonderful experience to teach students who incredibly deserve" the opportunity, she added.

Mark Sabbagh '12, who participates in the program, called the experience "incredibly rewarding" for the student mentors. "We fall between teacher and friend," he said. It is "less of teaching," he said, but really about "being with them."


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