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UB prof takes STEM to city schools to expand future workforce

At Bennett High School, students are using shake tables to test how structures hold up during an earthquake.

At South Park High School, they’re mapping invasive species.

And over at Burgard High School, they’re analyzing air resistance in car design.

Science is being championed in some of Buffalo’s most-struggling or “high needs” schools, with the help of a University at Buffalo professor leading the charge.

Chemistry professor Joseph Gardella Jr. leads a program that brings dozens of city teachers to UB and SUNY Buffalo State each summer to work alongside faculty and graduate students. The teachers take part in research and, in turn, gather ideas on how to make science more interesting and hands-on for their students.

The millions of dollars secured for the program have equipped teachers with the classroom resources they need – lab kits, lab coats, test tubes, solutions, goggles, assistance from college students, whatever.

In fact, the Buffalo program – known as the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership – has gained national attention.

Called ISEP, for short, the program is among 27 from around the United States picked to launch a national effort promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics to young people. This national initiative – recognized last month during a White House event – aims to reach those traditionally left out of the STEM fields: blacks, Hispanics, females and the disadvantaged.

Whites and Asians still dominate the field, according to a recent report from Change the Equation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Despite making up 29 percent of the working-age population in the U.S., blacks and Hispanics composed just 16 percent of the workforce in advanced manufacturing, 14 percent in computing and 10 percent in engineering, according to the report.

Women, meanwhile, fared better when it came to computing, but made up only 12 percent of the nation’s engineering workforce and 10 percent in advance manufacturing, the report indicated.

“It’s not just an equality issue, it’s a workforce-development issue,” Gardella said. “If we leave out all these kids, we really will not have the workforce we need.”

And half the jobs in these fields require no more than a two-year degree, he said.

“Science and engineering jobs just aren’t for the elite,” Gardella said, “but if they’re leaving eighth grade and they’re failing the algebra Regents test, the chance of them getting any of these jobs is zero.”

Over at Native American Magnet School on West Delavan Avenue, human physiology was the subject during a recent lab. Eighth-grade lab partners Phoo Zaw and Nautico Candelaria were taking their blood pressure.

“What did you do next?” asked Dave Thompson, a program volunteer.

“We put our hand in the cold water,” Phoo said.

“What happened to your blood pressure when you put it in the cold water?” Thompson asked her.

“Mine went really high,” she said.

Gardella, 60, has been a chemistry professor at UB for 33 years and is long known for his work in the community as an adviser on environmental issues. His two children, Joe and Claire, attended Buffalo schools, where Gardella became a parent advocate, primarily on issues related to special education.

However, Gardella also dabbled in the classroom helping teachers with science experiments. He began toying with the idea of creating a program to help Buffalo teachers make science more interesting. But rather than target the top-performing schools, he wanted to reach out to those struggling and in need of resources.

“I got my sense of social justice from my parents,” Gardella said. “Between the two of them, they spent over 80 years teaching in some of the most difficult schools in Detroit. They worked with kids on the fringes at times when things were much worse than they are now. That’s a big part of the inspiration, but it’s also the case that I was asked to do it.”

James A. Williams, then-superintendent in Buffalo, asked Gardella to pursue grant money that would fund a collaborative project with UB. A $485,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation in 2007 was enough to pilot the program at the Native American Magnet School and Math, Science & Technology School.

Armed with a model and backing from the university, Gardella applied to the National Science Foundation not once, not twice, not three times, but on four occasions before winning a five-year, $9.8 million grant in 2011 for UB to partner with Buffalo schools, Buffalo State and the Buffalo Museum of Science.

A dozen schools now participate: East, Bennett, South Park, Riverside, MST, Burgard and Hutchinson-Central Technical high schools, as well as Harriet Ross Tubman, Charles Drew Science Magnet, Lorraine Academy, Southside Elementary and Native American Magnet.

“It’s actually my favorite class,” said eighth-grader Nasseer McLaurin, while working in the science lab at Native American Magnet. “It’s a real hands-on class.”

One hundred Buffalo teachers participated in the program at UB and Buffalo State this past summer, each receiving a stipend – paid out of the grant – for their training over the course of a month. One of the initiatives was to translate science materials into Arabic, Somali, Burmese and Nepalese for the burgeoning number of students in city schools learning English as a new language.

“Our percentage keeps going up,” said Heather Gerber, the science teacher at Native American Magnet who piloted the program with Gardella, “so over the years I’ve had to figure out how to get them involved so they understand.”

Inside Gerber’s room, the cabinets are filled with science materials and equipment paid for by the grant. Assistance from the college students – some of whom are paid, some who volunteer, some who earn credit – allow for smaller groups and more individual attention.

“To me, it doesn’t matter what district you’re in, everyone should get the same opportunities,” Gerber said. “That’s what this program has really done.”

Over at Bennett, the Science Club meets after school each week.

One week, they’re learning physics by designing vehicles with paper, straws and Life Savers candy. The next week, it’s chemistry and making copper pennies appear gold and silver by exposing them to certain chemicals. On a recent day, it was biology – dissecting frogs.

“Sometimes they think the science is too challenging for them and it’s really not,” said Bennett science teacher Gina O’Kussick. “That’s why we try to start with small activities – making rock candy, making ice cream, making slime. This is science – we just continue to take it to the next level.”

O’Kussick gave a lot of credit to Gardella.

“Students get opportunities that even suburban schools don’t get because of Joe,” Gerber said.

Gardella, in turn, gave a nod to his program partners, which include SUNY Buffalo State, the Buffalo Museum of Science, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Praxair and Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute.

“I get too much credit for this,” Gardella said. “The teachers make it happen.”

Despite the attention to this issue in recent years, the percentage of women in STEM fields has not improved since 2001, according to the report from Change the Equation.

Since then, blacks and Hispanics are even less likely to pursue careers in engineering, computers and advanced manufacturing, the report noted.

So is the Buffalo program making an impact in schools?

There are signs.

Science testing has improved in some cases, particularly among students learning English as a new language, Gardella said.

More middle schoolers in the program are making it into better city high schools, he said.

Nearly all the students at Native American taking ninth-grade science as eighth-graders have passed the Regents exam in recent years, he added.

A bigger question is whether the program can be sustained.

Funding will run out sometime in 2016 or 2017, and Gardella knows that when grants dry up, programs often do, too.

Landing a grant of similar size would be unusual in these days of tighter budgets, so Gardella is already looking to accumulate smaller pots of money and preparing to hit up those most concerned about the development of the workforce – like New York State.

“I know nobody likes to hear this, but this is work that takes a long time,” Gardella said. “It’s a hard slog that takes years to change.”