While Ariel Community Academy is one of the many schools that PE has had the pleasure of working with over the years, Ariel has been with PE for well over 14 years! To talk about this amazing feat, we sought to interview Dr. Judith Shelton, the Curriculum Director, and Meghan Bagley, the Ariel Sisters4Science STEM Facilitator. Dr. Judith Shelton and Meghan Bagley were kind enough to provide answers to some interview questions.
Dr. Judith Shelton:
- Please tell me a little about you and your background.
I have spent over thirty five years in education as a teacher, educational researcher, as well in helping to start two schools. I have worked with state school districts to help define policies for the improvement of state schools. I spent five years working at the Center for the Study of Reading as a researcher of educational policy, strategies, and teacher change. I continued to work with school change and policy at University of Wisconsin where I acquired my Doctorate Degree in Curriculum and Instruction in urban education.
- How did you/your school get involved with Project Exploration?
Early on, we began with the dinosaur curriculum offered to primary grades which was an enormous success. After that we had a Brother in Science program and, for several years now a Sisters in Science program. Many of our students also participated in the summer programs offered by Project Exploration as well as the dinosaur dig in Montana. In short, we have had the privilege of partnering with Project Exploration for many, many years.
- How does PE benefit your school?
PE benefits our students, families and school in so many ways. The greatest impact has been that PE generates a long lasting interest in science and careers in science in our community. Parent nights have been some of my most memorable moments as parents see their children demonstrate the processes of science in culminating experiences. It is equally true that, for Sisters in Science, for example, once in the program students want to continue year after year. This exposure to real science, real scientists fosters a relationship in which our young women see a career in science as a clear goal that can be attained.
On another note, PE programming begins with an interest in what students themselves are interested in. Students learn that their ideas are valued by others and that science is, indeed, a world around them that can continuously be examined and questioned. Young women grow socially and emotionally as well. Many of our students and families have experienced trauma, loss of loved ones to violence in our communities, or extenuating circumstance to family hardships. PE welcomes students to a safe learning environment that validates students, excites them in examining their potential, and, yes, from time to time brings students through a process of both personal and scientific problem solving and development. PE is not just about science, it is about developing positive young people who believe in their capacities.
- What has it been like working with Project Exploration for so long?
The result of working with Project Exploration for such a long time can be summed up in one word – rewarding! The achievement gap for African American students in both math and science has been well documented. Success in these areas is crucial to high school and college success. Thanks to PE, that need is being met in a positive way – exploring the here and now of science in a fun way outside of the classroom experience.
In addition, many of our students have pursued fields in the sciences or are on the path to doing so. As these students return from college hoping to become pediatricians, nurses and pharmacists or whether they pursue other fields entirely, the fact is that the support of PE through positive mentoring and making a gateway subject like science accessible to our students has been a foundation that defies nomenclature.
- Have you seen any changes over the years through working with PE?
Each year PE’s process of assessment, reflection and renewal brings changes that meets the distinctive needs of students and schools. From a longitudinal perspective, the program has seamlessly brought exciting experiences to students that creates a great deal of enthusiasm for students. Field trips were added to those experiences and began to broaden what was already a rich base of programming. Throughout the years as an educator, I have always determined the efficacy of a school from the standpoint of seeing student learning efficacy increase as well. That is, even if a task may appear daunting, do students believe, with practice, they can achieve success? That efficacy with regard to science and education in general is, without question, a very noticeable outcome of Project Exploration.
- Please tell me a little about you and your background.
I have always loved science and sharing my interest in science with others. Whether it was forcing my family to watch Planet Earth when it came out on DVD, or sharing “fun facts” with my roommates at dinner in college I have always wanted everyone around me to be as fascinated by the world around them as I am. I went into college picturing myself graduating as a Biology teacher, but quickly realized that a normal teaching position was not what I wanted. I felt very restricted by the school system as a whole and a curriculum that I did not have control over. I knew I wanted to be a part of something that I could focus on my specialties but also learn more about other things that my students had an interest in.
- Please tell me more about your experience with PE.
I started teaching the After School Matters program: Science Giants in the fall of 2015. I had just graduated from Denison University and kind of just stumbled upon Project Exploration through a family friend who thought it was an organization I would be interested in learning more about! I found out they were hiring for Science Giants and applied for the job! I had very minimal teaching experience going into the program, I had some “in class” experiences from college, but most of my first semester was just learning on the fly and just connecting with the students through the science. I would say the skill I brought with was gracefully put best by one of my students last year “You just get too excited about stuff, but it actually is interesting.” So I guess my persistence to make everyone around me as excited about what I am excited about, helped me reach my students! After a year of Science Giants I also started teaching for the Sisters4Science at Ariel. I fell in love with teaching the middle school girls almost immediately. They are so curious but there are so many pressures telling them what to think or do that I am able to help them break through those pressures to find things they really connect to.
My favorite activity we have done so far was when we dissected squid! At the beginning of the semester I asked the girls if they had any special requests for program days that I could put together. Pretty predictably slime was the first thing they asked for, but I was surprised when one of the girls asked for a dissection and most of the kids agreed with her as well! It was a lot of fun to share with them one of my favorite animals, and to watch the few girls who were a bit uneasy about the dissection at first getting really into it by the end!
- Your biggest/most important/most valuable takeaway from working with PE students?
The biggest divider between our students and the opportunities that are available to them is a lack of communication. There are SO many free opportunities in Chicago alone to middle and high school students, but the information gap is so large between the institutions and classroom teachers that organizations like PE are able to fill in that gap and bring that programming and the opportunities to the students. Through the connections at PE we are also able to tell students about careers they may not have known existed, by connecting them to real people who do the careers. The connections Project Exploration is able to make between the students and STEM in Chicago is incredibly valuable.
- What are your goals/hopes for the Ariel Community School and the surrounding community? How can Project Exploration help you attain them?
I hope more students get exposed to STEM activities and how cool science can be. I don’t want every kid to be a scientist, but I do want every child to know how valuable being exposed to STEM is for their future and careers. In our society being able to think critically and express your ideas confidently is incredibly important, and being exposed to STEM and learning how to talk logically about science will help build those skills.
I think Sisters4Science is a great start at Ariel! I would love to see a Brothers4Science and other programs start up to engage more students! I have boys come in all the time asking what we do, and telling me they wish there was something like this for them!
- What are your hopes for the future with PE? For the future of STEM education?
I hope that PE and other organizations can work to change the perception of STEM. It is not nerdy and uncool to like science. Working with middle school and high school students is so important for them to realize that there are some incredibly cool careers and things you can do with STEM. I hope that PE can continue the amazing programs that we have in place already but also be able to support new programs and expand the reach of the current ones!
Project Exploration is proud to partner with Ariel Community Academy in producing the Ariel Sisters4Science Program! Thank you to Ariel for a wonderful 14 years and for providing us with this interview! We are looking forward to many more.