Stimulus Funding Connects High School Students to CUMC

For scores of New York City high school students, summer means days filled with pipetting liquids and performing real litmus tests, thanks to federal stimulus funding that supports summer research programs at Columbia University Medical Center.

Part of the 2009 federal stimulus money, nearly $562,000 from the NIH, was awarded to CUMC to fund summer research experience projects that bring local high school students and teachers to campus and into the labs of working scientists for the opportunity to conduct research.

The 12 P&S faculty awarded summer research experience funding hosted students from public schools across the city’s five boroughs in 2009. The students worked on projects with faculty in P&S, the School of Nursing, and the Mailman School of Public Health.

One long-standing program, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is Columbia’s Summer Research Program for Science Teachers, founded in 1990 by Samuel Silverstein, M.D., the John C. Dalton Professor of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics. The program provides opportunities for metropolitan area middle and high school science teachers to do hands-on research for two consecutive summers under the mentorship of Columbia faculty. The program, which Dr. Silverstein continues to direct, also provides participating teachers with funds to buy science supplies and equipment for their classrooms. Their Columbia research experiences encourage them to implement more hands-on, problem-solving exercises in their classrooms to stimulate students’ interest and understanding.

“By studying a real-world scientific problem using the tools of contemporary science under the guidance of Columbia faculty,” Dr. Silverstein said, “teachers gain a deeper and more complete understanding of the science they teach. In starting this program, we thought this would translate to greater student achievement. This is a simple concept. It uses existing human and physical resources. Its economic benefits exceed its costs. In short, it works.”

Research backs up that statement. A study of the impact of the program over a decade was published in the Oct. 16, 2009, issue of Science. Results show that high school students’ pass rate on New York state standardized tests, called Regents examinations, improved significantly if their teachers participated in the Summer Research Program for Science Teachers. Students of participating teachers passed Regents science exams at a rate that was 10.1 percentage points higher than that of students with other teachers in the same schools. Passing Regents examinations is a rite of passage for all New York state high school students. To receive a regular high school diploma, students must pass, with a score of 65 or higher, five Regents Exams, including one science exam.

The authors of the paper, led by Dr. Silverstein, also documented the economic benefits of making hands-on laboratory experience available to science teachers, demonstrating the kind of short- and long-term savings that can be realized when teachers are retained and students do not have to repeat coursework.

Although the summer program for teachers originated in P&S, faculty from throughout the University participate; nearly 200 members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have mentored teachers in their laboratories, presented seminars on topics of general scientific interest to participating teachers in the program’s professional development sessions, served on the program’s Advisory Committee, and visited teachers’ classes and schools during the academic year.

Of the more than 100 programs for science teachers in the United States, the Columbia program is the only one to collect student outcomes data for a long enough period of time to demonstrate a positive impact.

Each spring, Columbia selects 10 to 13 middle- and high-school science teachers in New York from a pool of 30 to 60 applicants. Admitted teachers are appointed as visiting scholars at Columbia University. They receive a stipend, an e-mail account so they can use the university’s libraries, and money for conference travel.

Nationally, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology released a report in February on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-funded NIH summer research program that involved more than 3,000 students and science teachers. The $28 million program allowed participants to learn about science and science careers by working in NIH laboratories for the summer. According to the report, nearly 74 percent of high school students who responded said the summer research program played an important role in their decision to major in science.

PHOTO:  Anita Edwards, a Brooklyn teacher, worked with Columbia Professor Kartik Chandran’s research group studying nitrogen greenhouse gas emissions from wastewater treatment processes