New York / Dec. 3, 2012 / by The Team

With more and more resources being cut from public school systems across the country, students are becoming increasingly likely to drop science from their work load as they move from middle school to high school. In order to combat this, the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership was founded to help schools in Buffalo, New York rekindle students’ interest in science. 

Joseph A. Gardella, Jr. had long been “a Buffalo public schools parent activist, especially in special education,” when he was approached by people who asked him whether he would interested in looking into and helping science education in Buffalo public schools. 

His background in science and his position as the John & Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry at the University at Buffalo, lent him the perfect angle from which to address the problems. 

The problems that are facing Buffalo schools, much like public schools across the country, are many. “I think Buffalo is the now fifth poorest city in the United States,” says Gardella. “The schools have very high needs, low graduation rates.”

With regards to science and engineering education, Gardella explains that, “the transition from middle school to high school is where students disproportionately lose interest in science and engineering as a potential thing that they can do with their lives or having to do with a career.”

In order to engage children in the sciences, Gardella oversaw the creation of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership – a partnership between local public schools and the surrounding universities and colleges – of which he is now Director. 

Gardella explains that ISEP is “a program that links the professional development of teachers to increase their knowledge about science and engineering in particular interdisciplinary science and engineering, which is really the way science and engineering is done at the research and manufacturing levels these days.”

In essence, in order to increase the chances of engaging students at a middle school level, ISEP provides the resources for teachers, such as funding and research positions, that allows them to further engage their students. 

“It's to increase their knowledge but also to give them the resources in the classroom to actually implement that knowledge and so both the teachers and the students get more experience with the actual hands-on work of science and engineering,” says Gardella.  

The pilot program ran for approximately seven years in two Buffalo public schools before the program was expanded to include twelve schools in 2011. The premise had to be tested thoroughly before it could be implemented on a larger scale. 

The schools they have expanded into were carefully chosen on the basis of performance and need. “We're really much more at the grassroots level,” says Gardella, “so we identified schools that ... by these performance measures, are struggling. Yet we know in every one of these schools, there are students that are capable and are not necessarily surrounded by the resources to help them perform.”

Working on the basis that students are most likely to lose interest in the sciences during their transition from middle school to high school, ISEP was determined to encourage students to choose they high schools based on a program they find exciting.

“We chose schools strategically on the basis of developing programs in the high schools that are attractive to students leaving middle school and choosing high schools,” explains Gardella. 

Buffalo’s public school system is “a complete choice district meaning that there are no traditional geographic feeder schools. Students can apply to any high school and ideally you would like them to go to that high school because there's a program that they're interested in.”

This gave ISEP the idea to encourage teachers in middle schools to build relationships with teachers in high schools in order to connect the work done at the lower level with future opportunities at high school level. 

For example, Burgard High School has excellent welding and automotive technology programs. If teachers in middle schools are aware of these programs, they can encourage students interested in those fields to choose Burgard as a continuation of that interest. 

The work begins with the teachers who “spend time during the summer doing research projects,” says Gardella. But far from simply lecturing the teachers in research, “We really expect that teachers' work product from that research to be new things they can implement in the classroom with an emphasis on hands-on work.”

“It’s one of the first ventures into a true interdisciplinary program,” says Burgard Physics teacher and Science Coach, Bruce C Allen. What they’ve been used to “in the past has been to separate science from other disciplines including things like engineering. What we’re doing here now, instead of keeping one in one corner and one in the other, we’re bringing them together and showing the students how these subjects interrelate.”

Brian Wiesinger, the Principal of Burgard High School says that, “In an urban school district, we sometimes struggle with kids coming to school ... We need them here so that they can learn, they can graduate, and one of those draws is something that is a little out of the ordinary. Instead of just sitting in a classroom for six or six and a half hours a day, here they’re up, they’re moving, they’re participating, and again, taking control of their own learning.”

This means the teachers gain the opportunity to work on research they might never have seen before and gain “a more practical experience about the day-to-day ups and downs of doing science and engineering work,” Gardella explains. 

With 64 teachers attending “various authentic research and educational opportunities to build their experience level” this summer, ISEP is gaining a great deal of positive involvement from teachers across the schools they work in. 

Far from underestimating the teachers, ISEP takes full advantage of the teachers’ creativity and experience in the classroom to take what they learn during their research sessions and transform it into an engaging classroom experience. “We're counting on the teacher innate abilities,” says Gardella.

The research and financial resources mean that teachers can provide a much more hands-on class that is more likely to engage students, giving them a real-world example and value to what they are learning. 

It’s “inquiry-based science so instead of a recipe or a white sheet of paper with a bunch of lines to fill in, it's to get students and teachers active, just as they would be if they were doing science in a research laboratory or in a manufacturing or industrial site.”

Iviangelisse, a 17-year-old high school student says that, “people just think you go fast just because you go fast. That’s not the answer to everything. There’s always got to be a scientific explanation for something or some sort of explanation and I think that physics really helps you understand exactly the nitty gritty of it.”

One of the most important resources ISEP can give to the teachers are the human resources they provide in the form of “graduate students, faculty involvement, and undergraduate students in the classroom so that they can implement these things in the kind of ways that the best inquiry science teaching is done at the college level,” says Gardella.  

Partnering with universities and colleges gives the schools the chance to invite students in to assist in teaching the classes and giving them any advice, encouragement, and mentoring the children might need. 

As Gardella puts it, “our students can speak to high school and middle school students in a way that a 57-year old, gray-bearded guy cannnot.” The addition of young and energetic college students in the classroom can help give the middle and high school students the motivation and self-belief they need to get to college themselves. 

ISEP Graduate Assistant, Lavone Rodolph explains that, “it really engages their interests and that’s what we really want to do. We want to captivate their interests at an early age. If we can get the children or the students asking questions at an early age, they’re more likely to investigate those questions and they can do it in a theoretical or a practical way.”

The success of the program has surprised Gardella – knowing that the program worked on a small scale, in just two schools, did not guarantee the success across more schools. 

“I twist no arms in order to get collaboration,” says Gardella, “and we built a really strong network of collaboration to support this so I'm very passionate ... I, like many people in the United States, believe that if we don't deal with school children at the middle school and high school age in high needs districts, both urban schools and rural schools, we're just leaving out a huge fraction of our population from living a good life in America.”

WIth a vicious cycle of low supply and demand, the excitement for science is fast leaving Buffalo high schools. “Out of the 16 high schools in Buffalo,” says Gardella, “there are only 6 that teach physics, so physics isn't taught in a lot of high schools here because it's viewed that students aren't going to take enough science to make that as an opportunity.”

This is what ISEP is determined to change and by linking the study of science and engineering in middle school with exciting programs being offered in high schools, it is succeeding in gaining and sustaining students’ attention. 

ISEP’s strengths come from the fact that it provides the schools and teachers with the much-needed resources but lets those who know the children best – the teachers and principals – work on how best to use those resources. 

“It demands on the teachers and the principals to come up with a vision to move forward and the school district leadership then buys into that,” says Gardella, something that ensures the passion and drive of all involved.  

The community, from the middle and high schools teachers to the university faculty and students, really has rallied around ISEP and the work they are doing. 

“For me, the two things that are most joyous for me are the results of having graduate students and undergraduates in the classroom. That is far beyond what I envisioned – the passion that the students bring to working in the schools” says a delighted Gardella. 

“The second part is that faculty in colleges and universities for whom there's very little very clear reward system for doing this, have come to me to say, 'I've heard about your program, this is really important and I want to be part of it'" and they will take extra time and go the extra mile.” 

Gardella’s passion for engaging more and more students in the world of science and engineering is evident from the work he has put into ISEP and his dedication is due to the deep-seated idea that anybody can be good at science if they get the chance and the encouragement they need. 

“I'm of the type of scientist that believes that everybody can do science ... it doesn't work when we think of it as an elitist enterprise and what I want every student to feel is, 'I can be successful at doing science and my own background, and my own interests and my own ability to ask questions are important. They're relevant and it makes a difference in the other things I do in my education, and gives me a passion for thinking about a career.’”

“I think the difference is that we're trying to introduce what might be considered very sophisticated projects but linking that to goals that are evaluated so that students see that doing science isn't showing up at a classroom and listening to a lecture and filling in a sheet of paper.”

To learn more about ISEP and the work they do, please visit their website