Institute Looking For Young Scientists

February 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — With the health care industry being touted as the future of Grand Rapids, the Van Andel Education Institute is helping to make sure area students will be a part of that future by encouraging them to consider scientific fields as viable career options.

The Van Andel Education Institute Science Academy will begin its first offering this summer. The “Signature Program” will allow 20 fourth- and fifth-grade students from the area to experience science during a month-long summer course once a year for three years.

“We’re growing scientists, and we’re doing that in a variety of ways,” said Marcia Bishop, VAEI associate director.

The first class of students will meet from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday, for most of the month of July, and then meet again the next two summers. Bishop said the three-year commitment is mandatory, but for those who cannot or do not want to make a commitment, there will be other opportunities.

“We will offer other programs in the future,” she said.

There will also be two after-school programs, one in the fall and one in the winter. Bishop said the programs’ schedule has not yet been set and will be announced at a later time.

There will ideally be one teacher leading all three sessions, but that person has yet to be hired. Classes will be taught in the Mercantile Bank building, which the Van Andel Institute acquired in 2005. The space will be renovated to include lab space for individual and small group exploration and research, open space for presentation, staff offices, a reception area, parent room, project rooms and storage.

Bishop said there has not been a geographic boundary set for students who wish to take part in the program. Students from public, private and home school programs may all apply.

The first cohort of students will participate in the program at no cost. Transportation will be provided to students who cannot afford it, as the program is meant to reflect the population in the Grand Rapids area, including the minority and lower socio-economic populations. Priority will not be given to gift or talented children or to those who are disadvantaged, Bishop said.

She said they are looking for students who are curious, interested, persistent and, most important, are able to commit to all three years of the program. Students who are unable to commit will not be considered. The reason for the length of the program is so the children will be able to fully comprehend the concepts, and also so the institute can study how the same group of students is taught year after year.

One of the institute’s goals is to see more students choose careers in science or a science-related field as a result of the program, Bishop said.

The emphasis on education in the past has been on reading and math, Bishop said.

“There’s more recently been a recognition that we need to also put an emphasis on the sciences,” she said.

As part of the program, the institute will be studying the best practices and ways to teach science, then pass on that information to other teachers in hopes of reaching more students. Bishop said the methods of informing other educators have not yet been determined but may include printed information and workshops.

“Our students don’t have the depth of knowledge that students do in other countries,” she said. “What we learn will add value in the classrooms.”

Bishop said fourth and fifth grades were chosen as the age group because students are still curious at that age. It is also before middle school, when many students lose interest in academics.

“They’ll be more able to think about going into the field, because they’ll be experiencing it,” she said. “It is my hope that they’ll get a better sense of what scientists do. The youngsters will behave as scientists behave.”

Students will go through the entire program with the same group in order to build a network and a sense of accountability to one another. Bishop said it is important that the program forms a peer group to encourage the students in continuing their education.

James Resau, deputy director for special programs, director of quantitative sciences and scientific investigator for the Van Andel Research Institute, said he wholeheartedly supports the academy and its efforts.

Resau said he often speaks to the public about what scientists do.

“We’re not all Dr. Hyde kinds of people,” he said.

Encouraging students across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrum also is a benefit of the academy, Resau said.

“From a health perspective, many of the diseases that we are dealing with are over-represented by groups of people who are under-represented in the sciences,” he said. “If we don’t have those individuals in the field, that makes it more difficult (to understand their needs.)”

Resau said the academy will give students who enjoy science a way to build and enhance their skills in the same way they would with an athletic activity or musical instrument.

“This is their love and their passion, so they’re going to work on it year-round,” he said.

The program will provide enrichment activities that are both fun and challenging for these students, Resau said.    

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