time reversal

the stories of four physicists separated by the whims of fate

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Full circle

November 26th, 2008 by ruth

I’ve been doing some thinking about education lately. After all, how cool is it that I get paid to go to school right now? In many other fields, grad students have to pay their way through a PhD by waiting tables or begging their parents for financial support. I’ve got a sweet deal.

One of the things I like more and more about grad school here at CU is that it’s a public institution. While I was at MIT it seemed like the outside world had ceased to exist. CU is a lot more connected to the surrounding community. I’ve started getting involved in some of their science outreach stuff. There are two main reasons I’m really into this: I want to learn how to teach, and my education before MIT left me pretty angry (and concerned) about America’s public schools. Maybe if I start to get involved as an adult I’ll be able to understand the issues better and effect a positive change. And of course there is a third reason, which is that I really want an excuse to play with cool science toys.

Right now, I’m in the JILA PISEC program. They run weekly informal after-school programs for kids to explore science. The learning style is inquiry-based and creative and hands-on, trying to teach them how to think through questions and experiment for themselves. I just love this, because until I got to college all of my science classes were based on rote memorization and as a result I thought science was a little boring. Clearly I’ve changed my mind, and I want to share the excitement. In addition to directly helping these kids learn, PISEC is simultaneously conducting research on us and how we learn to teach and how this sort of thing can be done more effectively. So everybody wins.

Out of the available sites, I ended up choosing to teach middle school kids at a housing project full of Hispanic agricultural workers in nearby Longmont. Might as well brush up on my Spanish, right? And here’s where it gets crazy. We were driving out to the site for the first time, and everything around me started looking really familiar. I used to live in Longmont, back in 6th and 7th grade. And we were driving right past my old house. It turns out this project is about three blocks from where I used to live! I had no idea it was even there.

Even crazier, these kids I’m tutoring go to the same schools that my brother and I went to. These schools were a disaster, and having the good fortune of being born to wealthy parents we fled to private schools before the end of the first semester. Lucky us. The educators in this district had an interesting idea, which was to reach out to the large native Spanish-speaking population by teaching in Spanish-language or bilingual classrooms. Unfortunately there is little to no infrastructure in place for training or finding high quality teachers who are bilingual. The result is that students are segregated into ‘separate but equal’ classroom environments by socioeconomic class. Elementary school education in this school district may be uniformly poor, but it is also true that students who speak Spanish at home have it much worse.

I tutor students in the fourth and fifth grade, and some of them have difficulty reading and writing regardless of what language they’re working in. Because we are there to teach scientific methods and not literacy, I often end up asking a student to describe their thoughts to me so that I can write them down in the worksheets. Just because they’re behind on one subject, why shouldn’t they still get to learn the fun stuff? It sounds kind of depressing, but this is actually really fun. There’s something so amazing about that moment when they figure something out.

It’s odd to find myself in exactly the same place I was ten years ago, under such completely different circumstances. I’m remembering a lot of things, like education, that I used to care about more before I buried myself in my work for four years as an undergrad. It’s like I am rediscovering this ‘outside world’ thing that people keep on talking about. And I’m even taking some time to get involved. Shhhh . . . don’t tell my research adviser.

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