Taking Advantage of the Urban Advantage
|Urban Advantage students from PS 226 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn at the annual science fair at the Museum of Natural History. For their Exit Project, Adam, Moe, and Frank explored how a solar-powered car works.|
Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2002, states have faced increased pressure to improve student’s math and reading test scores. But does the emphasis on standardized tests ensure that students are being taught what they need to know, or is it crowding out the range of activities that make classroom learning interesting and fun? One clear result is that many subjects besides English and math are getting short shrift.
According to Jim Short, director of the Gottesman Center for Science Teaching and Learning at the American Museum of Natural History, “a lack of focus on the sciences has too often resulted in an outdated and textbook-driven science curriculum that doesn’t teach students how to do science—collecting data, developing a hypothesis, and posing a testable question.”
Science has also been sidelined because there is a nationwide shortage of trained science teachers. In the City, many have little experience using hands-on science activities in their classrooms, and teachers are often just one lesson ahead of their students. Principals, many who are new to the job, also need guidance on how to work with teachers to improve science instruction. As a result of these deficits in funding and focus, in a 2005 national assessment (the most recent data available) two-thirds of the City’s 8th graders didn’t know basic science.
The American Museum of Natural History, concerned that the City’s public schools students were not being prepared to even consider a career in science, worked with the Department of Education and seven other cultural institutions in the City to start Urban Advantage in 2004. This successful and popular program helps teachers build a curriculum based on scientific inquiry and problem solving and includes trips to the City’s great science institutions. Allison Cooke, who teaches eighth-grade science at the Bronx School for Law, Government, and Justice, was one of the first in her school to go through the Urban Advantage training. “I learned how to teach kids to do real scientific investigation by going through the process myself.
We even completed an Exit Project, a science project that my students must complete at the end of the year.” Now she helps lead Urban Advantage workshops in the evenings for other teachers. She continues, “The program helps kids embrace science based on their interests and what they experience every day. One student said to me, ‘we have a tree near my building and my dad’s the superintendent. He trims it down but it grows back every year.’ Based on this scenario, we figured out what experiments we could do to test growing conditions, and explore how and why trees grow where they do. Now kids get excited about their Exit Projects early in the year and they love the field trips and being able to see science in action everywhere.” Jim Short adds, “At the zoo, kids are collecting data on animal behavior, or at the botanical garden they observe and record variations in trees or flowers.”
To date, more than 250 teachers and 24,000 students from 147 middle schools have participated in Urban Advantage, and with The Trust’s help it’s growing fast, with programs now in over one-third of all schools with an eighth grade. A $100,000 grant will enable the museum to involve 6,000 more students at 10 new schools in the program.
“Although City public schools don’t have the wealthy tax base of suburban schools, they do have a wealth of science-rich institutions,” says Trust education program officer Kavitha Mediratta. “This program makes it possible for middle school students to take full advantage of this urban advantage.”