reed magazine logosummer2007

Teaching About the Birds
and the Bees
(and the Flowers
and the Frogs)

For many of the Reedies involved, biology outreach is a welcome chance to get out of the “bubble.” Monika Wieland ’07 got involved in the program as a second-semester senior already working on her thesis—a study of orcas in Puget Sound (see “Listening to the Whales”). “There were days when I would be stressed from thesis and other school work,” she says, “but I could walk into those fifth-grade classrooms and the students’ curiosity and excitement put it all back into perspective for me. It reminded me of why I love biology so much.” Wieland worked this summer as a naturalist on a whale-watching boat in the San Juan Islands; next, she will be working with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry to teach a group of 8- to 14-year-olds about marine life.

Wieland already had some experience teaching children. But for other Reed students, this was the first time they had been in a classroom as the provider, rather than the recipient, of knowledge.

Immediately after finishing her thesis in biology, Amy Jahns Polzin ’96 helped get the program on its feet as Reed’s first outreach coordinator. “I had never thought about teaching before I set foot in a classroom with the program,” she says. “Once I started working with these amazingly dedicated public school teachers I was hooked.” Today, she teaches integrated science, biology, and earth science at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon.

Polzin’s students are English-language learners—mostly Hispanic and Eastern European—who have been studying English for three to five years. “I wanted to teach a population of kids who might not otherwise get quality science instruction,” she says.

Many of the third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students reached by Reed’s biology outreach program are similarly disadvantaged. Beach Elementary in Northeast Portland is at the center of a racially mixed, rapidly gentrifying area where, as Arnold puts it, “some children have been on European vacations, and others have only seen airplanes fly overhead.” Grout Elementary in Southeast Portland is in an increasingly diverse neighborhood north of Reed’s campus. A world map next to the principal’s office at Grout indicates students’ countries of origin, with pins planted in Mexico, Peru, Russia, and Nigeria, among other countries. Grout also serves a group of Somali Bantu refugee children who have been resettled in Portland. Lewis Elementary serves a combination of middle-class and poorer neighborhoods east of Reed. The school that is being added to the program this year, Lincoln Park Elementary, is in a transitional neighborhood in East Portland that has seen rapid population growth as poorer residents have been squeezed out of gentrifying neighborhoods farther west. Like the other schools, Lincoln is also Title I, with a high proportion of children living in poverty.

According to the BHEF report, the shortage of qualified teachers is most acute in schools like these, with many minority and impoverished students. Thea True, a recent outreach coordinator and former high school teacher, believes that exposing Reed students to the challenges faced in today’s schools may do more than give them a window into science pedagogy; there’s a civics lesson built in as well. “They chat mostly about the discipline issues, like how tough it is to teach a class of 30 when there are language issues, special-ed issues, when there aren’t enough desks,” she says. “It’s so hard. Even if they never go into teaching that is a very valuable lesson for voters.”

Time in the classroom also brings a new sense of urgency to the teaching profession. Arnold speaks passionately about tutoring at Portland Evening High School, a remedial program for students who have failed one or more classes. “I look at some of them and I think, where were they when they were in fifth grade? And then I look at my classes in outreach and I try to think, who is it going to be who cannot understand that there are 10 millimeters in a centimeter? Because there are plenty of them at Evening High School. We have this opportunity early on to help send them down a different path.”

science students

Outreach coordinator Linsey Arnold ’07 (right) assists students with the melting-point experiment. The end result: lab-made ice cream, which the students got to eat at the end of class.