by Paula Kavathas, Ph.D.
The graduate student picked two 7th graders to be chromosomes. She wrapped toilet paper around their waists to represent centromeres. She picked two other students to be centrioles. They tied yarn to their "chromosome": and then each pulled on the yarn to separate the two chromosomes. The children laughed seeing their classmates wrapped in toilet paper being pulled apart. This little visual drama made an intangible concept seem real. That is one of the things I've learned from working with graduate students in the New Haven Schools; the value of creating dramas in the classroom to illustrate scientific principles. For the past three years I've been the faculty coordinator for graduate students who go into 7th grade classrooms in the New Haven schools to carry out "hands-on, minds-on" projects.
It all began when several of the graduate students in the Department of Genetics and I decided that we could contribute to grade school education by going directly into the classrooms with equipment, projects, and enthusiasm. We developed three projects that would fit into the 7th grade curriculum: 1) phenotype/genotype and segregation of traits, 2) mitosis and chromosomes, and 3) DNA. The projects were designed to be carried out in small groups so that a total of 3-4 teachers were needed per class. We organized each class period as follows: the graduate students introduced themselves at the beginning of the class and in one or two sentences described what research they were doing. Then one of the students gave a 15 minute presentation to the class as a whole. The chromosome drama described above was part of one of the presentations. Then the children were divided into small groups. Each group either worked with one graduate student for the whole project or they rotated between stations with one graduate student taking responsibility for each station. For instance, in the project on mitosis and chromosomes, the workstations had i) a video on mitosis, ii) slides of stages of mitosis in onion cells observed with a microscope, and iii) karyotypes with 46 or 47 chromosomes. A graduate student at the station with the karyotypes would have the children count the number of chromosomes on their karyotype, and then startup a discussion on how the chromosomes looked and why there might be 46 or 47.
These demonstrations offered advantages to both the 7th graders and the graduate students. The graduate students really enjoyed working with the children and they could experience what it might be like to teach children. For some, it was their first experience with low-income urban children and they all met bright enthusiastic learners. One graduate student told me how shocked they were at the simple classroom in the science magnet school. The set of old desks, a few outlets, and a floor in need of repair was a stark contrast to the 7th grade science classroom in his school growing up- that looked more like a lab than a classroom.
These teaching experiences greatly enhanced the graduate student's communication skills. They shared their individual experiences and learned from each other's presentations. It was challenging to explain scientific concepts to 7th grade children in a way that would hold their attention. Yet, with some effort and creativity, we were able to find some solutions that opened the minds and hearts of our young students to science.