By Rolando Garcia
Natural Sciences and Mathematics Communications
In one of Houston’s most impoverished neighborhoods, high school students who had struggled with algebra and geometry received their diplomas in May, thanks to extensive one-on-one tutoring.
And in April, a lucky group of Houston-area teens traveled to Switzerland to chat with Nobel laureates and take a sneak-peak at a scientific marvel that could help physicists unlock the origins of the universe.
These and many other Houston youth have been positively impacted by faculty and students of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics who are working to improve science and math education in Southeast Texas.
Through various outreach programs, departments in the college have made community service a priority. Whether it is tutoring students at a low-scoring school in the university’s backyard or giving especially bright youngsters the chance to work with UH’s leading scientists, NSM is using its world-class academic resources to make a difference for Houston.
Two programs in particular – one to help improve student performance in math at Jack Yates High School and another that introduces the city’s most promising science students to advanced physics – hit their stride this year and have ambitious goals for the future.
“Service to the community is an essential part of our mission as a public university,” said John Bear, dean of the college. “Through these programs the college is using its knowledge and resources to help build a better Houston.”
The Yates program, started in the spring of 2007 and run by the UH Department of Mathematics, already is producing tangible results. Having already failed the math test all high school students in Texas must pass to graduate, 21 Yates seniors gave it one more try. They attended intensive tutoring sessions run by Yates teachers and UH students and when they retested, 20 of the 21 passed.
Lending a Hand to Third Ward Neighbors
The outreach to Yates, a school nestled in the heart of one of Houston’s toughest neighborhoods, was born after the school hit a low-point in 2006. Because of low test scores and graduation rates, it was rated academically “unacceptable” by the Texas Education Agency.
A prominent Third Ward pastor – Rev. William Lawson – believed that UH and Texas Southern University, both located just a few blocks from Yates – might be able to help the struggling school and approached university officials.
Both universities agreed to pitch in, with TSU providing science tutoring and UH lending support to the Yates math department.
About 10 UH student tutors – science, technology, math or engineering majors with high GPAs – visit Yates three times a week to provide one-on-one assistance with algebra and geometry. They work both in regular math classes and in special enrichment classes with the students struggling most.
“They’re not just tutors, they’re mentors and role models,” said Beverly Brown, the program director for the UH mathematics department who oversees the outreach to Yates.
The program works because the tutors are not just good at math, but have the warmth and maturity to connect to students, Brown said.
Building relationships with the students she tutors has been essential to teaching them effectively, said Natalie Ladner, a junior math major who tutors at Yates.
“I’ve become so attached to my students,” Ladner said. “It feels good when you’re explaining a problem to them and you see that light bulb go off.”
Math teachers at Yates are glad to have the extra help, Brown said, and the program played an important role in boosting the passing rate on the TAKS math test from 36 percent to 46 percent in just one year. And among the at-risk students most heavily targeted by the tutoring program, the passing rate jumped from 29 percent to 43 percent.
In addition to the on-site tutoring, UH also holds monthly professional development workshops open to all math teachers in the Houston area. Teachers learn to more effectively integrate technology like graphing calculators into the curriculum and to develop lesson plans with real-world applications.
For example, Brown said, a lesson on the x-y axis and how to track movements on a grid system might be more engaging if teachers incorporate into the discussion how a coordinate system is used to guide spacecraft.
The workshops also help new math teachers studying to pass the state certification exam. Because of the shortage of certified math teachers, uncertified instructors are allowed to teach math while they work on getting certified.
Despite their early success at Yates, UH’s mathematics department is not resting on its laurels and Brown hopes to expand the tutoring and teacher workshops include the middle schools that feed into Yates.
Rubbing Elbows With Nobel Laureates
In another NSM outreach program that reached new heights this year, physics faculty at UH take some of the brightest science students in Houston to the frontiers of matter, energy, space and time.
Through UH’s involvement in QuarkNet, an international program for high school physics students and their teachers, the physics department works with high schools in the Houston area to expose students to cutting-edge research.
On four Saturdays each semester dozens of Houston teens delve into the world of physics with presentations by UH faculty, lab tours and other activities. In April, two teams of students from Pasadena were selected by QuarkNet to travel to Switzerland to get a rare look at the recently constructed particle collider in Geneva. The student teams were among only five selected nationwide.
The students were accompanied by physics department chair Larry Pinsky and Robert Dubois, a visiting assistant professor of physics who coordinates the department’s outreach efforts.
The Geneva facility, built by a consortium of European nations, is the largest and highest-energy particle accelerator in the world. The April event attended by the students was the only glimpse the public will get into the inner workings of this billion-dollar project.
Students got a peak at technology that could tackle some of the most profound questions of the universe, Dubois said. Experiments at the collider could shed light on the physics of the universe at the time of the Big Bang, he said.
“The students were totally awestruck,” Dubois said. “They were rubbing elbows with Nobel laureates.”
The physics department also provides summer research fellowships to a handful of the most promising Houston-area high school students who plan to study physics in college. The students work on projects with UH faculty and this summer, Dubois said, the fellows might get the chance to help build detectors for the collider in Switzerland.
When particles collide at nearly the speed of light, it produces enormous amounts of data and a complex array of detectors is needed to record the information. Some of that equipment could be built by the teenage research fellows at UH.
The overarching goal of these outreach efforts is to enhance high school physics education and public awareness of the value of physics in the Houston area, Dubois said. Because most UH students come from the Houston area, the university is uniquely positioned to start nurturing its future students from high school directly into UH, Dubois said.
In fact, one of the summer research fellows not only plans to major in physics at UH, but also wants to enroll in the teachHouston program – an NSM initiative to train math and science teachers.
“Our whole department is very engaged with the idea of outreach to high schools and helping students understand where physics fits into their aspirations,” Dubois said.
While physics may not be the most popular option for prospective college students, Dubois encourages them to take another look.
An undergraduate physics degree can in an important asset for those planning to pursue graduate studies in medicine, engineering or even law, Dubois said.