New York City Public High School Students Visit M4S Scientists at University of Virginia

Did your math teachers take you on field trips?

“Math is how we engage with the world,” Mechanical Engineer Bevin Etienne recently told a group of high schoolers visiting the University of Virginia. So one might think that math field trips — explorations of the world, led by math teachers — might be a common practice.  Yet they are rare.

A director of Urban Academy Laboratory High School, a public school in New York City, invited Math4Science Founder Justine Henning to create a semester-long M4S course for their students.  “What’s Data About,” the course Henning came up with is a math elective, an introduction to the units and systems of measurement that form the basis of the use of math in the real world. Students reading about Bioengineer Derek West and the tiny particles of gold about a nanometer in diameter that he uses to kill cancer cells need to understand what a nanometer is (a billionth of a meter — too tiny to see without a microscope).

Some of the content of the course can be seen
in the Free Math Worksheets we’re posting at Math4Science.

Students in What’s Data About became detectives — examining graphs, tables, and other diagrams from M4S STEM professionals’ research and the regulations guiding their projects.  What’s being presented? In what units? How effective is that presentation? They trusted their eyes and brains to make sense of this “mystery data” and to ask questions about what they did not understand. And only then did they turn to the internet, doing further research to figure out what they were looking at. 

Students read profiles of STEM professionals like Civil Engineer Tysheina Washington as they explored STEM fields. Students had the chance to connect with Washington when she called into our classroom from Chicago, where she’s helping expand and improve the city’s train system. Students asked her the questions they had after reading about her work building Denver’s first commuter railroad. 

Especially exciting for all of us (Henning as well as the students) was the trip we took in November to Charlottesville, Virginia, to meet with six of the STEM professionals we had read about, and whose data we had explored. Here we are (below), standing outside the building which houses the labs of Global Change Ecologist Xi Yang and Physiological Ecologist Manuel Lerdau. Yang uses a fleet of drones to study the effects of changing weather and climate on forest trees. He used one member of the fleet to take a photograph of Urban Academy students and their teachers:

Yang and Lerdau also showed students what a leaf, an orange, an apple, and other objects look like when viewed through the filter that covers the window into Yang’s “Magic Box,” revealing the fluorescence generated by photosynthesis.  Jordi wrote I like global change ecology because they can make a big change in our lives. They are also studying how to stop global warming. They also told me how colors are made.

Naya (pictured below) asked Ecologist Lerdau about climate change: Have you come up with any life-saving results? She and her classmates were deeply impressed and encouraged by the work Lerdau is doing with a colleague at NASA Goddard (Spacecraft Systems Engineer Paul Mirel) to grapple with Earth’s warming atmosphere. Lerdau also showed us the different machines he uses to gather data on the soil plants grow in, some of which he designed himself. Their earlier study of the metric system helped students make sense of Lerdau’s statement that humans put 100 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere a year and that plants take up about that much while doing photosynthesis.

Earlier that day, students spent over an hour in Analytical Chemist Jill Venton’s lab. Through a microscope, they examined carbon fibers Venton and her graduate students use to build miniature sensors they place into the brains of fruit flies, mice, and rats to measure dopamine and other neurotransmitters. And they looked at a fruit fly brain through a second microscope.  

In Evolutionary Biologist Amanda Kyle Gibson’s lab, students looking into a microscope were able to see live worms (Caenorhabditis elegans) which Gibson and her graduate students use to learn about genetic variation and what drives it. Gibson held up a Petri dish, asking how many worms students thought were on it. (Most of these worms are invisible to the naked eye.) Her graduate student provided the answer: 40,000 worms! “This is a population,” said Gibson. “We can get thousands of babies in about four days.” When she added that they’re able to “put fluorescence on” the worms, students were able to think back to their conversations with Yang and Lerdau and their peeks into the “Magic Box” to understand what it means to fluoresce.

On the train down to Charlottesville, Stephany wrote I have not thought of going into the STEM careers. Two days later, on the train home, she wrote that her experiences in Gibson’s lab stood out most to her from the visit. Everything is constantly changing: animals, humans, the environment. Amanda studies evolution using snails. The environment affects how the genetic differences are expressed. Stephany added that she would consider becoming an evolutionary biologist herself because I would get to understand why and how things keep changing. I can also be able to tell why certain species look the way they do. As an evolutionary biologist I can help others understand the world we live in. 

Gibson also treated students to a card game called Red Queen that she designed with her doctoral advisor to help people understand how hosts and their parasites work in tandem to promote genetic diversity. 

The next day, we all walked back to the University of Virginia campus to meet Glacial Geologist Lauren Miller Simkins and several of her graduate students at the Simkins lab. Back in New York, when we read about Simkins’ work in Antarctica on the icebreaker ship Nathaniel B. Palmer, Jordi asked what coats she recommends to keep out the cold. So the geologist began her session with the students with an analysis of the benefits (and costs!) of different brands she likes. She also showed them a photo of “Big Red,” the coat provided to researchers on the Palmer:

The students from New York had done homework that required analyzing the sizes of different particles of sediment (clay, silt, sand, etc.), so it was very meaningful when Simkins pulled out samples of sediment she brought back from Antarctic waters and handed one to each student. She also set some up under a microscope. And one of her graduate students showed us the machinery they use to separate, photograph, and analyze individual particles — as many as 60,000 of them at a time!

The next day, Seth (pictured above, between Judi and Jordi) wrote that he can imagine becoming a glacial geologist because I think it would be so awesome to work in Antarctica. I’d love to solve climate change so that the world could actually not worry about drying out.

From Simkins’s lab, we crossed the campus to meet Mechanical Engineer Bevin Etienne, an entrepreneur who helped bring renewable energy to his native island of Dominica and did doctoral work on the miniaturization of cell phones.  Etienne spoke with students about the importance of math in all enterprises and about seeking out challenges. He inspired Judi (pictured above with Antarctic sediment in Simkins’s lab) to consider becoming a mechanical engineer; she said talking with him felt like a lecture class that I would want to take.

Angus also expressed interest in becoming a mechanical engineer after meeting with Etienne. I’d love to get to work with energy. The discussion with Bevin was really cool and the way he described the work he did sounded like fun. I’d like to do work where I could open things up and dissect them to see how they work. Angus is also considering studying electrical engineering (which Etienne also did). I would like to do stuff with the transfer of energy [due to] the differences between renewable and non-renewable energy sources.

Finally, we left UVA to visit the offices of Babylon Microfarms and meet CEO Alexander Olesen. Olesen learned about hydroponics (a way to grow plants without soil) in Etienne’s class at UVA and decided to create and sell indoor gardens.

Nini later wrote What really stuck out to me is how nearly every scientist we visited talked about climate change. It felt like it was on everyone’s minds and Lerdau and Yang were talking about solutions. Even at Babylon Microfarms they talked about how their farms were part of trying to be more environmentally friendly. Nini plans to study theater in the future but also to take courses in ecology. I love nature and want to learn more about it.

Angus also wrote about climate change at the end of our trip. One of the major problems I would like to tackle is … climate change. The reason I chose this one is that I want my children and my grandchildren to grow up on a planet with me (like not Mars). And I don’t want to die.

And Leah expressed similar desires with a sense of humor.  Why does she consider becoming a marine biologist? I want to study the ocean so we can be prepared when the sea animals rise up.

Students found every visit at UVA inspiring. They took amazing, detailed notes and asked great questions.  And they came away eager for college and the educations they might get there. Not only did the scientists, engineer, and entrepreneurs inspire them, but meeting two fellow New Yorkers, undergraduates at the University of Virginia, taught them about the very long history and other features of the school.

If you’re inspired by this story, you might be wondering “How can I help bring experiences like this to students across the United States?”  Your support of Math4Science helps us grow our online pool of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. It helps us create worksheets that connect STEM professionals’ work to the math students learn in class … and to offer the worksheets free of charge to teachers everywhere. And it makes trips like this possible. Donate here.

There are other ways of helping! Connect us with people working in STEM. Talk with administrators and math and science teachers at the schools you care about. Have them reach out to us to find out how we can create Math4Science experiences for their students. And if you know funders/philanthropists interested in improving K-12 math education and promoting interest in STEM (and STEAM = STEM + the Arts!), please connect us with them.

Speaking of STEAM, Naya wrote in her trip packet: I don’t know if I ever really considered math or science work before this class. I’ve never been a high performer in math so I never thought I could have that career. On the way home, she and also Mason wrote that they are interested in combining engineering with art. Mason read about Artist-with-a-STEM-Degree David Goldes on the Math4Science website during the train ride back to NYC. (He doesn’t use a lot of color, but fire, electricity, and other stuff. It’s super cool how he applies what he learned in his life about science to art!). This dude has inspired me to apply myself in science and math more even if just to improve my possible mediums and artworks.

We’ll give Grace the last word, in a video we recorded at the Charlottesville train station, shortly before heading back to New York City:

Watch the impact meeting scientists can have on students: