Building a Society of Independent Math and Science Researchers

By Sean Cavanagh — August 05, 2009 1 min read
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When education officials from foreign countries talk about the qualities of the U.S. school system they most admire, one thing they mention is the wealth of independent research projects encouraged by American teachers. In math and science, these projects, whether organized in school or out of school, are usually designed to nurture students’ problem-solving skills and their ability to examine a topic in depth, sometimes across disciplines. When I visited China a few years ago for a series of stories on math and science, school and government officials there told me that they believed independent projects helped promote creativity among students, and so they were keen on emulating that aspect of American study.

But do students from disadvantaged backgrounds get the support they need to undertake these efforts? One U.S. program that seeks to address that challenge is the Society for Science & the Public. That effort provides grants of $8,500 to U.S. math and science teachers, known as fellows, who work with disadvantaged students to help them foster independent research projects. The effort also seeks to establish lasting networks of scientific mentors for students.

Ten teachers were selected as the society’s first-ever group of fellows this year, through a competitive process; applications came in from teachers in 36 states.The fellowships are supported by the Intel Corp.

Last week, each of those teachers, known as fellows, attended an institute in Washington, D.C., where they received training and shared ideas for how they will go about their work. Presentations were made by researchers, university scientists, experienced K-12 teachers and others. Participating teachers can keep their fellowships for up to four years, with the idea that they’ll help guide students’ research interests over an extended period. The teachers will also receive continuous training throughout their fellowships.

I’ll pose a few questions for readers, which the society’s fellows are almost certainly addressing on their own. What is the key to a successful independent research project in math or science? Why do some student projects fall flat, while others succeed? And how can these projects be encouraged in schools where students do not have a lot of resources?

The photo of the fellows, outside the White House, was provided by Society for Science & the Public.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.