News and Events

Putting the SPICE in Science

spice logoThis article was Originally published in the April - May 2005 issue of CLASnotes.

Twice a week, nine UF graduate students trade the quiet of their offices and the solitude of their microscopes for the clamor of middle school classrooms. These students head to a trio of middle school campuses across Gainesville to bolster science programs and turn kids on to science.

The program, Science Partners in Inquiry-based Collaborative Education, or SPICE, is a three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation to encourage inquiry-based learning of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in middle schools that do not have the resources to provide hands-on, in-depth science programs. The $1.7 million grant that supports SPICE is up for renewal this year, having first been established at UF in 2003.

"We focus on the middle schools because studies have shown that early adolescents—especially girls—begin to lose interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," says Doug Levey, the UF zoology professor who serves as the principal investigator on the NSF SPICE grant. "We know that this is the time to keep kids interested."

Currently, Howard Bishop, Lincoln and Westwood are the middle schools benefiting from the program. Inquiry-based labs, the centerpiece of SPICE, are carefully planned, enthusiastically received by the middle schoolers and occasionally edible—one about atomic structure uses miniature marshmallows for protons and electrons. "Getting the kids interested isn't a challenge," says Jennifer Stokke, an environmental engineering PhD student who teaches at Westwood. "Even the kids who don't really like science are interested."

SPICE, one of about 100 such NSF-funded programs nationwide, serves as a proving ground for graduate students who, in the not-so-distant future, will face lecture halls full of college undergraduates. "A goal is to turn out graduate students who are better equipped to be teachers," Levey says.

spice programGraduate students and middle school teachers apply to the program annually, and a UF faculty advisory committee selects nine students and nine teachers each year to work together in the classroom. Graduate students receive a one-year $30,000 fellowship plus tuition and fees while the teachers receive a $3,325 stipend, and both receive $2,500 for supplies.

"What drew me to the program was the ability to do research, teaching and outreach," says Larisa Grawe, a zoology PhD student who teaches at Lincoln. "With this program, NSF is sending a message that all three are important."

Balancing their SPICE commitments with their individual research is difficult, the graduate students agree. But they look for ways to integrate their fields of study into the middle school classrooms. Grawe, whose focus is paleontology, brings in fossils for her students to examine and study. Christine Stracey, a zoology PhD student, studies the effects of urbanization on the common mockingbird—Florida's state bird—and says she would like one of her students from Lincoln to aid with her research this summer.

"The program gives us opportunities to do things we would not otherwise be able to do," says Sara Charbonnet, a Westwood sixth grade science teacher in her second year with SPICE. "In order to do labs and inquiry-based learning, it takes a lot of preparation, and the SPICE fellows are a big help."

On each of their two days a week in the classroom, the graduate students teach about 125 or 130 middle schoolers. Next year, the program will expand to two more Alachua County middle schools: Hawthorne and Oak View.

Levey says the program and the interest it fosters could steer underprivileged middle schoolers toward higher education—and that SPICE could be a wellspring of future engineering, math and science majors at UF. "If we can get these kids into these disciplines early on, there is a chance they'll stay in the field," he says. "It's only a matter of time before it provides a wealth of resources for the university."

—Warren Kagarise

Jane Dominguez

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