Last Friday a small knot of local science teachers huddled around an aquarium in a downtown Grand Rapids laboratory to put the finishing touches on a five-star hotel for pill bugs -- those little critters that roll into balls when given a gentle nudge.
The very next day, fourth-graders re-enacted the same experiments using almost identical methods at the Van Andel Education Institute . Instead of sleeping in or watching TV, the third and fourth graders spent their Saturday morning learning about how environment affects animal behavior. Voluntarily.
The nonprofit institute is bent on making inquiry-based science -- hands-on and heads-on instruction -- part of the fabric of metro Grand Rapids for students and teachers. If it proves successful, the program may even be rolled out nationally.
You could say the unofficial motto for the institute is: Today pill bugs, tomorrow the world.
"I look at this organization and I just think of the possibilities for local school districts," says Noelle Gillies, 41, who teaches fifth grade at Forest Hills Central Woodlands School. "I'm always struggling to bring science alive for my students in a way that will encourage them to think about a science career. The Van Andel Institute is a way to connect the Medical Mile to the school districts."
Indeed the Medical Mile in downtown Grand Rapids has gotten much longer through the VAEI, reaching more than 500 students ranging from inner city classrooms to suburban school districts with programs that bring science to learners of all ages. The Education Institute offers a range of activities, from those meant for children as young as first grade all the way up to a variety of internships, mentoring relationships, and intensive lab experiences geared toward undergraduate scientists and post-graduate research and medical students.
The hope is that today's curious kids will be tomorrow's scientists, staying in the metro area to do research at the Van Andel Research Institute, conduct studies at local hospitals, or invent new medical devices that are then made by area companies.
Doing What Scientists Do
"One reason that there's so much active engagement here is because that's what scientists do," says Marcia Bishop, associate director at VAEI since 2004. "When you work with kids in an afterschool basketball program, you teach them how to play basketball. When they're part of St. Cecilia, you don't have them read a book about a trombone; you teach them to play music. It's the doing of science that's so important in growing scientists."
The walls of the Institute are adorned with photos of students engaged in scientific exploration – peering through microscopes, wading through a stream, recording observations in lab notebooks – and one entire wall proclaims, "Learning to Think and Act Like Scientists!" Whether the learners at the Institute are of the adult or child variety on any given day, the emphasis is firmly on active engagement with science.
Surrounded by tanks holding turtles, fish and other animals, 10-year-old Maya Boone likes the engagement. "I get to touch things more here," says the fourth-grader who is homeschooled. "I like doing investigations on the environment and finding out stuff that I didn't know before." Boone isn't clear yet on her future career plans – she mentions being an artist or playing soccer – but says science is now her "favorite subject in school."
Boone is a member of the Science on Saturdays program for students in the first through eighth grades. As its name implies, the program offers Saturday hands-on science activities ranging from creating model habitats to extracting DNA samples. Students bring one adult with them for the two-hour sessions, which accommodate up to 16 students per grade level and are offered periodically throughout the year.
A higher level of commitment is expected from children who apply to participate in the Institute's out-of-school time program. Available to students entering fourth and fifth grade, the program places 20 curious, persistent students in a cohort that will progress as a group for three years, spending either three weeks per summer or two afternoons per week during the school year learning together.
Getting a Little Extra Science
Rumico Gordon, 11, who recently completed her three-year commitment to the cohort, says learning at the Institute gave her a head start on her dream of becoming a doctor. "You get to do more stuff on your own here, and you don't sit down much," says the Wyoming sixth grader who attends North Godwin. "I've always wanted to become a doctor, and now I have extra science to get there."
Whether or not Boone, Gordon, and the other students who have participated in the Education Institute's programming choose a career in science is just one outcome that will be tracked as students go forward.
Longitudinal studies will track how students spend their spare time, which classes they elect in middle school and high school, and see which students enter science-related fields upon college graduation.
"We want to do more than engage short term; we want to motivate long term," says Bishop, who has held positions in education ranging from teacher all the way up to district superintendent. So with a scientific rigor, that means parents of these participants (and the participants themselves, eventually) will be filling out surveys every year until the participants have graduated from college.
Because the curriculum is designed, written, and implemented by the Institute's in-house science specialists, the models can be replicated at other sites, leaving open the possibility that success here could influence the larger national push to improve science education.
Local Science Community
Gillies, who serves as the chair of the science department at Forest Hills Central Woodlands, says she was drawn to the professional development program at the Institute partly because of a desire to understand the impact that the science behemoth could have on the local science community.
For teachers, the Institute offers both short-term and long-term professional development opportunities for science educators geared toward changing their teaching methods.
Brian Staggs, 36, teaches science at three Grandville elementary schools and appreciates having this kind of a resource in the community. "It's nice to be able to point to an area in the city that's doing current research and shows students a local, real-world connection and location," he says. Staggs noted that just one day of professional development had provided him with new knowledge of the inquiry-based learning method that he could bring directly back to his schools.
"A broader goal of mine is that I want students to be a knowledgeable adult about science that affects them. Even if they don't ultimately choose science as a career, this is a place I can point to tangibly that's doing research that affects all of our health," says Staggs.
The educational arm of VAI has been active since the institute's beginning, and VAI's dual focus on both education and research comes straight from the Van Andel family philosophy.
"The educational arm of the Institute exists because of Jay and Betty Van Andel's belief that one way to improve the health and well-being of a community is by kindling a spark of imagination in the minds of its children," says Education Institute Director Steve Triezenberg. "Since VAI's inception, there's been a dual commitment to both research and education. We want to engage local students and educators, not only to improve science literacy locally, but also to have a national impact on science education."
Triezenberg, who also currently serves as VAI graduate school dean, says, the institute "is growing scientists who will take their places eventually in the labs of VARI, work as physicians at those hospitals, teach at those medical schools, and perhaps create start-up companies that help West Michigan transform from a manufacturing economy to a community with a place at the life sciences table."
Lucca Paletta, 12, another recent graduate of the out-of-school time cohort, just may be one of those future scientists. He says his favorite experience in the program was the day "we went up the hill to the Research Institute and we saw all the real scientists at work." The Ada resident and Northern Trails sixth-grade student says that trip inspired him to become a chemist at VARI himself one day, adding: "It looks fun."
Stephanie Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among other things. She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their two young daughters.
Van Andel Education Institute (3)
Erykah Ross (2)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved