Expert Views :: Educating Young Scientists
Robert Wallace

When I taught high school science at the New Orleans Center for Science and Math, my physical science classes would sample water from a site in City Park's lagoons and measure several water quality parameters each month during the school year. We used computer probes donated by the Center for Bioenvironmental Research (CBR) at Tulane and Xavier Universities and old Apple laptops donated by a local law firm. Many seasons of data were available for comparison.

During the first two years of sampling, dissolved oxygen varied widely depending on season and, more unpredictably, the weather. At times when the weather was cool and the wind was blowing, we might find it at 10 milligrams/liter (mg/l). One time in May, when it was very warm and the lagoon's bottom had been recently dredged, we found pan-sized bass and smaller sunfish flopping in the shallows. Some of their fellows, apparently not as hardy, had died and were floating about, leaving an aroma in the air not appreciated by my students. We found no measurable dissolved oxygen in the water.

The pH in the lagoons was usually 8.2, and the salinity ranged from 4 to 8 parts per thousand (ppt). But recently, the readings differed from previous years. Since the beginning of the school year, the pH was around 7 and the salinity never above 4 ppt. At first, I had recalibrated the probes and verified the results on my own. They held up.

High school students at the New Orleans Center for Science and Math on their way to collect water from Clark Creek with their teachers.
From left to right are Edwin Steer, Frances Sims, and Lauren Weber with teachers Valerie Bodet and Rob Wallace.

"How many times does the pH have to be different to know that it’s normal now and it wasn’t before?" Nakita asked, looking at the graphed data my class had maintained for almost three years. Her classmates looked at her and then turned their inquisitive glances toward me.

"Well, I would have to give you two answers to that. Answer one is that after four months I’m pretty sure that what we are seeing now represents a real change, " I said. "The second answer is that there is no such thing as normal. That lagoon has been there for thousands of years, since the river passed through that spot. The conditions are always changing. Native Americans used to fish there. There used to be a plantation there. Now there’s a road near it and trash in it. It’s always changing. Change is what is normal."

They accepted this answer.

This scenario is rare in high school science instruction today; 14-year-old students do not usually discuss real data that they collected in real scientific terms with their teachers. As we all are well aware, public schools, and especially urban public schools, are struggling to educate their students. And they aren’t always successful. It is a pointed irony that most of these struggling schools exist in the same communities where our country’s best scientists are working at elite research centers, addressing the world’s most complicated and difficult problems.

In our community in New Orleans, one high school and one research institution are working to build a new model for transforming science education. The New Orleans Center for Science and Math (NOCSM) has had, since its inception 11 years ago, the backing of scientists. In fact, it was Tulane University Medical School professors who began the school. The school recruits teachers whose primary background is in the subject areas of science and mathematics; this is true of most science and math high schools around the country. NOCSM is unique in that its students are not admitted based upon test scores or grades but on a commitment by applicants to work hard and some evidence of interest in science or math. That’s it. No admissions test, no minimum grade point average.

Several years ago the school formed a partnership with the CBR. That partnership brought equipment and expertise to the school and opportunities for students to do significant science research in their classes and in internships.

In addition to the water quality research conducted in freshman science classes, environmental science classes use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to analyze biodiversity and physical conditions from data they collect in City Park. They also study invasive species and take field trips throughout southeast Louisiana, including one to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) where some CBR scientists have research labs. Even some freshmen visit LUMCON, where they compare their studies of biodiversity and water quality in City Park to their findings in the brackish marshes near Cocodrie, La.

During the summers of 2003 and 2004, I supervised a total of nine students who worked with CBR scientists in their laboratories at Tulane and Xavier universities. For six weeks the students conducted research on chemotrophic bacteria, pharmaceutical compounds in tap water and surface water, and isotopic ratios in sediments of the Mississippi River and the Arabian Sea. I taught them to use GIS software in the CBR’s computer lab, and they used the universities libraries to prepare their research papers. At the end of the internship, they presented their results at a mini-symposium of scientists and students. Some of them presented their findings again at the annual e.hormone conference in October.

The CBR's involvement with the high school fits into the Center's pipeline model for bringing under-represented groups into science careers. All of the students at the school benefit from the enhanced classroom programs and equipment that the CBR provides. The interns share what they learned from their research during classroom presentations. Younger students from many of the city’s middle schools visit our high school during the year. On these visits, our students teach their juniors some of what they have learned in these special programs.

What are the results of these programs? Over 95 percent of the students pass the state graduation exam on their first attempt. Over 90 percent of the seniors go on to college. Seniors have, from the small enrollment of 350 students and senior classes of about 80, close to $500,000 of scholarships every year. About 40 graduates attend Tulane and Xavier universities, and some work in CBR laboratories as college students.

These programs pairing high school students with university expertise are good for the future of science in our country. They provide students with an excellent understanding of science concepts and methods and real experience in working as scientists. This promises that the next generation will be equipped to conduct the research and make informed decisions about the challenges our society faces. These programs are also good for our schools because they make school real and meaningful and provide qualified teachers with rewards and opportunities that support their efforts on behalf of students.

We believe, at NOCSM and the CBR, that this successful model for the cooperation of research institutions and public schools could be used in other cities as well. In the future, we hope to see many classrooms in cities across the country where students and teachers are working with scientists at universities and research centers to conduct real science. When students and teachers have rewarding opportunities to work as scientists - assisted by the colleges and universities in their communities - both educational scientific systems will benefit.