Fast forward to today and imagine my surprise when someone forwards me a Science article that explains that the GK-12 fellowship program, which allowed graduate students to be placed in school classrooms around the country to assist kids and teachers in conducting scientific inquiry in the classroom, was cancelled. Color me shocked. Actually, I think horrified is a better approximation of my emotions. Let me explain.
I am a current NSF GK-12 Fellow. This is my second and final year on the fellowship. I was awarded the fellowship in the second semester of my first year of my PhD program. This was about the same time I was working on writing my proposal for my research. I found that working through explaining the research process to middle school children really helped me focus down on my own research topic and finish my proposal by the end of the summer of my first year. This really helped me to move forward in my research over the summer and get the better part of one paper finished my by my second year of graduate school.
The following school year, I was moved to a high school where I worked with sophomores, juniors and seniors on water quality research. In the high school where I work, the seniors conduct a year long science research project as a capstone course. Helping the kids work through the inevitable "mandatory floundering" of research toward those moments of enlightenment we all experience as scientists was incredibly rewarding. It also had the unintended benefit of giving me something positive to hold on to when my anxiety caused me to fail my oral comprehensive exams last year. GK-12 gave me a sense of purpose that helped me to keep pushing forward on my research when I felt pretty bleak.
This fall, working with a new set of kids, explaining the research process again, and helping them move through the research process, helped me to get my confidence back and improve my public speaking skills to the point where I could pass my comprehensive exams. I also have students this year who are really interested in geomicrobiology, which has given me the opportunity to shape projects and advise students on all kinds of research questions I find interesting, but otherwise don't have the time to pursue. Additionally, I have been working with a class of undergrads at BIG U who intend to be teachers, performing the same type of advising on their projects. I feel like I have a better handle on what it takes to be faculty at a R1 institution than some of my compatriots who don't have the opportunities my fellowship has provided. I also do not believe that the GK-12 fellowship has negatively impacted my research skills as suggested in the science article, as I intend to graduate in 4 years with 5 publications, including a methods paper.
The GK-12 fellowship really inspired me to do more and to be better. It made me realize how important it is for me to talk about my science with everyone I meet. A lot of my job in the classroom isn't just to help the kids develop research questions and find ways to answer those questions. My job is first and foremost to listen to the kids, to find out their interests, and to help them see how science and math plays into EVERYTHING, whether it's skateboarding or biofuels. Carl Wieman, associate director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy asserts that one reason the program was cut is that:
“"The reality is that, under GK-12, the time available for kids to interact with grad students so that both sides could develop a relationship …was probably not enough to achieve the impact that one would have liked to see.."I really question this assertion, because it is the antithesis of my experience. I have comforted the military child in one of my classes who needed a good cry because she hadn't heard from her Dad who was in Iraq. I felt her pain as only someone in a military family could. She didn't need a scientist that day; she needed a friend who understood what she was going through. We worked on managing her stress so that she could focus on her school work. I have listened to many a kid who is growing up every bit as poor as I was as a kid and I have shared with them my success story and the tools that I found worked to escape poverty. I love those kids and I have celebrated every success and mourned every heartache with them for 2 years now. The truth is that unlike what Mr. Wieman supposes, you cannot teach someone unless you have a trusting relationship with them.
Most Americans don't even know a scientist. They still describe scientists as old, white men in lab coats. They think science either is 1) all figured out already (i.e. science is taught as a series of facts) or that 2) scientists change their minds all the time for no reason. Neither of these views are accurate representations of the truth. Each of these misconceptions affects whether or not young people will consider a career in science. Having a young woman (i.e. me) or a person of color, or someone like my friend Ilya there discussing science and engaging in explaining how and why science is a process has meaning and value.
I am deeply disappointed by this decision. I encourage each and every one of you, whether you are a scientist or not, to write your Congressman and the President and tell them that these programs are critical to our ability to grow future scientists and maintain our preeminence in the scientific arena. I really believe that the GK-12 program is one of the most important things I have ever participated in as a scientist and it is a shame that the relationships GK-12 fellows have built aren't recognized or appreciated by our government, even as they stress the need for better science education.