Middle and High School Students in Los Angeles Learn from UCLA Science and Engineering Experts

In an effort to improve science education at the middle and high school levels as well as raise students’ awareness and interest in the area of science and engineering, UCLA has established the Science and Engineering of the Environment of Los Angeles (SEE-LA). The program, which has received $3 million over five years from NSF’s Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 (GK-12) Education Program, pairs graduate fellows from UCLA with science teachers in the Los Angeles and Culver City unified school districts.

SEE-LA focuses on the environment of Los Angeles. Issues such as urbanization, global and regional climate change, drought, floods, fires, earthquakes, pollution, transportation, preservation, biodiversity, energy and water use confront the students of L.A. on a daily basis.

Graduate fellows, with research interests in the above or related areas, contribute to the professional development programs of the science departments of the schools. Students at the schools also benefit from fellows through an enriched learning experience with more individualized attention in the classroom and by having an opportunity to directly interact with fellows.

“This year there will be four fellows from the engineering school and six from the physical and life sciences. These fellows basically serve as scientists in residence,” said Terri Hogue, director of SEE-LA and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Like many of the artists in residence programs, our fellows serve as science experts in the classroom. With their help, students will get exposed to things that they’ve never heard of or seen. We want to get them excited about science.”

Specifically, graduate fellows are partnered with two teachers from Emerson Middle School, University Senior High School, Culver City Middle School, or Culver City High School. Fellows spend two full days per week at their assigned schools and ten hours per week engaged in classroom activities.

“The students love having the fellows in the classroom,” said Kris Kaiser, a senior graduate fellow returning to the program. “For most of them, we are the only scientists they will ever meet. In many cases, the kids are fairly limited in their understanding of what they can be when they grow up. They have virtually no understanding of the wide range of paths science can take them in.”

Fellows also spend an additional five hours per week in non-classroom activities such as planning with their teachers, researching and preparing lessons, meeting with the GK-12 management team, going through program evaluations, or attending workshops.

A primary goal of the SEE-LA program is to also help graduate fellows improve their communication, teamwork, teaching, and public outreach skills through active collaborations with not only their assigned teachers, but also with UCLA faculty and through interactions with their students.

“The NSF has recognized that a lot of us are very good at research, but we get rather narrowly focused. What we really need, if we’re going to make on impact on society, is to learn to step back and think about the bigger picture and be able to communicate with the general public,” said Hogue.

“We also want to get graduates interested in doing long-term outreach to the community. As they become scientists or engineers in academia, research centers or other venues, we want them to stay interested in outreach that has broader impacts on the community.”

Feedback regarding the program from teachers, students as well as the graduate fellows themselves has been very positive.

Kaiser explained that though she wanted to improve her communication skills and improve as an educator, she never considered working with high school students.

“But by the end of the year, I realized I was going to miss the kids the most! I’m amazed at how much I loved interacting with the students at this level,” said Kaiser.

“Last year, we had 24 graduate fellow applicants and this year we had 45. Word got out that the graduate students have been really happy with the program. At the end of the year we also get to see the impact in the classrooms. Many of our fellows received letters and thank you notes from their students. It’s very rewarding for all of us,” said Hogue.

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Reprinted from the Fall 2009 UCLA Engineer magazine.