Genetics professor Audrey Gasch loves questions.
It’s her job as a scientist to ask questions and then go seek answers. But it’s also her passion to help others ask questions, including some of Madison’s youngest future scientists.
Gasch joined the Department of Genetics faculty at UW-Madison in 2004. Her undergraduate degree is from UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Idea has always been a part of her mindset. So early on, while she was setting up her new lab, she was also setting out to take her love of science beyond the UW campus. Science outreach and public service have always been important to Gasch.
So she started calling around to local schools, but with little luck. That was, until she met Dolly Ledin, program director of Adult Role Models in Science (ARMS).
ARMS works with campus partners and Madison-area schools to help K-8 teachers develop more robust inquiry-based science education and to get students excited about science by connecting them with role models. ARMS coordinates an ongoing community-wide collaboration around elementary and middle school science education, bringing existing programming, resources and stakeholders together.
Within just one hour, Ledin connected Gasch to 10 different schools in Madison.
Over a decade later, Gasch remains as passionate as ever for enhancing science education in Madison schools. Gasch says teachers, especially at the elementary level, don’t always have the capacity or training to teach a robust science lessons.
“Public schools are really under so much pressure on all fronts,” says Gasch. “It’s harder for teachers to be innovative in those areas if they are not a major point of focus.”
So Gasch, and other scientists on campus are partnering with teachers across Madison to help build better lessons and bring new projects to classrooms.
Sean Schoville is another one of those scientists. He joined the UW-Madison Department of Entomology faculty in 2013 and says that the university’s public service mission was one of the big reasons why.
“As a new faculty member, I am really motivated to do outreach with local schools and communities in Madison,” says Schoville, who reached out to WISCIENCE and ARMS after arriving on campus.
Last year, ARMS connected Schoville to a few different schools in Madison, where he helps teachers develop science curriculum and supports UW graduate and undergraduate students working on science outreach in the schools.
“The teachers are incredibly talented and creative,” says Schoville. “But they’re very stressed for time.”
Schoville brings his professional training in science as well as years of experience in outreach to help the teachers develop new lessons. But he says he’s learning just as much from the teachers.
“And in the process, I also learn because they have incredible knowledge of how to get kids excited and to engage them in hands-on teaching. So they have, in turn, taught me quite a bit about teaching,” he says.
Melina Lozano, a teacher at Hawthorne Elementary in Madison, has partnered with ARMS for years and says working with UW students and scientists has made a big impact on her second and third-grade bilingual classroom.
“My students need as many high-quality educational experiences with adults as possible,” says Lozano. “And working with talented young scientists at the UW-Madison has been an indispensable experience.”
An important part of the outreach team is the many UW students working with local schools on a weekly basis. Students make up the bulk of the ARMS volunteer force, which is responsible for leading around 35 science classes and mentoring over 50 middle schoolers each week.
Hanna Peterson, a senior biology major from Omaha, Nebraska, has been involved with school science outreach since she took ARMS’ service-learning course taught by Dolly Ledin. Peterson, who currently does ARMS outreach at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, says that the most important thing is to create excitement.
“A lot of times, Dolly tells us we just want you to go get the kids excited,” Peterson says. “So do your best, get your science point across, try to teach them some things. But just get them engaged in science. Make them want to learn more. Which I think is a really cool approach.”
Building excitement and curiosity, Gasch says, is the trick to connecting young minds to science.
“I don’t care about kids knowing facts,” she says. “I care about kids being able to learn about a fact and then think about it critically. My main goal is to use science as a tool to reach critical thinking.”
Gasch is now developing a new program, called “Ask a Scientist.” The premise is simple: Get kids excited about science by encouraging them to continually ask questions, and then recruit UW scientists to help answer those questions. She piloted the program last fall at Lowell Elementary and is working to expand the program this year.
“It’s like a science pen pal,” says Gasch.
“It doesn’t matter if the kids are behind in reading or math or not,” says Gasch. “Most kids intuitively can ask questions. Many of them end up being really talented at asking questions.”
Both Gasch and Schoville say it doesn’t have to take a big commitment for a UW scientist to make a meaningful impact. And there’s a number of ways to get involved across the spectrum of time commitment.
“It sounds like it’s this lofty program and big goals and high stakes,” says Schoville. “But really, it’s a commitment anyone can make. And it’s certainly a refreshing thing too sometimes—to go into a classroom where people are excited about what you do and to connect with them.
“That energy comes back with you and translates back into your own work. So it’s great.”
This article was originally published on the Morgridge Center for Public Service website.