The Learning Corridor

By Martha Sheppard ′66
Photography by Justin Fox Burks


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Opening the Doorway, Opening the Hall

“Don’t stand in the doorway, Don’t block up the hall,” goes the line in Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”. No problem at Rhodes, where the corridors of learning have always been wide-open. So open in fact, that in the last few months the college has extended those corridors to some midtown public school students.

The purpose: to foster an interest in the sciences and in careers in the sciences among elementary- and secondary-school students and to offer pedagogical aid to their teachers.

The result: the Rhodes Learning Corridor that sponsors eight science programs involving students from three public schools, plus Rhodes faculty-taught courses for middle-school science teachers for them to earn proper grade level accreditation.

Why science? Why Rhodes? Why not?
It all has to do with today’s education and its impact on the country’s future well-being. In a May 3, 2004, New York Times article, “U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences,” author William J. Broad quotes a National Science Foundation statistic: “The numbers of new doctorates in the sciences peaked in 1998 and then fell 5 percent the next year, a loss of more than 1,300 new scientists....” Broad also quotes John E. Janowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation: “The rest of the world is catching up....Science excellence is no longer the domain of just the U.S.”

It means fewer U.S. scientists are being published in professional journals. It also means the U.S. economy could see fewer patents—and profits—on everything from cutting-edge drugs to computer chips.

In short, “Who will do the science of this millennium?” asks Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

If that isn’t a wake-up call, consider this: A lack of racial diversity in health-care professions across the board directly threatens at least one-third of the U.S. population and indirectly hurts millions more, say many experts. Government entities like the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the U.S. Department of Education strongly urge colleges, universities and medical schools to encourage minority students to enter health-care professions.

Characteristically, Rhodes sees the future as now. So with a faculty and student body immersed in volunteer community service and a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education issued in December 2003, the college has wasted no time in augmenting two existing Rhodes programs and creating six new ones, forming the Rhodes College Learning Corridor.

In 2004, Rhodes received an additional $250,000 Department of Education grant. Both grants, strongly supported by Tennessee’s congressional delegation, will fund the Learning Corridor for two years.

The eight “lanes” in the corridor are:

  • Young Scholars
  • St. Jude Partnership
  • Science Is Cool 
  • Project SWEEP
  • Middle School Zoo Research 
  • Pink Palace Partnership 
  • Davies Plantation Archaeology 
  • Middle School Teacher Licensure

Young Scholars

It could be said the Rhodes Learning Corridor began 14 years ago with Young Scholars, an intensive four-week summer program in biology for Memphis-area high school students. Originally funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and later by the Plough and Assisi foundations, the program has always been conducted by Rhodes biology professors in Rhodes laboratories with an average of 30 students each year (a record 48 from 26 schools in 2004). Mostly rising juniors and seniors, they come from every neighborhood and school in the Memphis area, and they have one thing in common: They want to pursue careers in the sciences.

That’s always been music to the ears of Young Scholars director Prof. Chuck Stinemetz.

“The program really does three things,” he says.

  1. "It teaches them how to design experiments beyond the general scientific method—how really to design them to take into account parameters that might alter the results of the experiment. With that, it allows them to do their own hypothesis testing. They’re testing experiments that they create.
  2. “Once they execute those experiments and learn the best way to reduce and report the data, in general it teaches them how scientists communicate and share information.
  3. “Ethics is a component of the course that teaches them about the place of science in society—why society needs to be scientifically literate, what sort of questions scientists have to face in terms of ethical considerations. It ranges from questions involving the environment to the ethics of two people coming into an emergency room at the same time: How does a physician decide which one should be treated first, assuming they’re both going to die if they don’t get treated?

“I think one of the best things about the program is that we have students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds,” Stinemetz says. “They have a common interest in pursuing science, but what is really as useful as learning science is learning about one another and that each of them has something to contribute.

“It can be a leveling experience for many of the students. It’s probably the first time they’ve ever been in class with 47 other kids who are all excited about similar types of things. I think that’s an unusual academic experience for a student at this age. At the same time they’re bolstered by the fact that everybody else is pushing just as hard as they are. The first day, everybody’s very quiet. By the end of the program they’re exchanging addresses and holding a party after our graduation ceremony. They stay in contact with one other and with me. It’s a badge of honor to graduate from the program. It helps keep them interested in science and moving forward, which is one of the things I’m most interested in—keeping them in the science pipeline.”

Students work from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday in the lab, and for their efforts, earn three hours of college credit.

“They are giving up four weeks of their summer,” Stinemetz says, “and it’s amazing to me that every year we receive 80-90 applications.”

The biology faculty—Stinemetz, professor emeritus Bobby Jones and John Olsen, biology professor and associate dean of academic affairs—do some Rhodes recruiting work as well.

“For most of the kids who come the first day, Rhodes isn’t even on their list of schools to consider,” says Stinemetz. “By the time the program is over Rhodes is on half the students’ lists.”

A payoff for the Rhodes biology faculty is knowing that while some students do attend Rhodes, almost 100% of them go to college, and indirect data suggest about 85% of those major in science.

Another one is seeing alumni of the program.

“We took the students to a couple of seminars at St. Jude last summer,” Stinemetz recalls. Two women walked up to me there. They said, ‘You’re Dr. Stinemetz.’ I said, ‘Yes I am.’ ‘You don’t remember us, do you? We were in Young Scholars six years ago.’ They were graduate students at the University of Tennessee, Memphis. That really makes me feel good. This has happened more than once. Meeting people who had been in the program who tell you how wonderful it was, that it had transformed their lives—that’s very enriching.”

Rhodes/St. Jude Partnership

For six Central High School students who participated in the 2004 Summer Scholars program, it isn’t over till it’s over. They’re currently in a new lane of the Learning Corridor, the Rhodes/St. Jude Partnership: Preparing High School Students for Biomedical Careers. The program recruits six Central students who have participated in the Rhodes Young Scholars program and pairs them with mostly minority postdoctoral fellows (M.D.s and Ph.D.s who are conducting research) at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The postdocs, who become the students’ mentors, invite them to seminars at the hospital, take them on tours of the facilities and involve them in some actual research.

“The postdocs love the idea,” says Rhodes biology professor and Learning Corridor director Tony Becker. “Rhodes created the program, but it was their initiative. They really took it and ran with it.”

Science is Cool

Hundreds more Central High students are in the new Science Is Cool lane. Throughout the week, five Rhodes science majors work with 10 Central science teachers and their students, tutoring, conducting laboratory demonstrations, working with advanced placement students.
Moss Driscoll, a senior and native of Corinth, VT, is a biology major with a minor in earth systems science. In the past, he volunteered in the Snowden Elementary School after-school program, reading and discussing books with first- and second-graders. This year, he’s literally in his element.

"The best way to prepare students for a college biology class is to get them interested in the sciences and make them understand that it’s something interesting with application to everyday life and the natural world we live in."
-Moss Driscoll ′05Working with 9th-,11th- and 12th-graders in the classroom and labs, Driscoll also spends time with those in advanced placement classes and meets with the Science Club after school. At one recent meeting representatives from the University of Tennessee, Memphis medical center spoke to club members about professional career possibilities in the sciences.

“It’s really interesting to get back into the high school classroom and see young students who are excited about the material they’re learning and interested in the possibilities that are out there,” says Driscoll. “The kids at Central are really motivated. They’re still finding out what interests them and what they might want to do in the future. It’s fun to talk with them about it, about what I’m studying at Rhodes and what the different possibilities are in the college world and beyond.”

Driscoll smiles when he talks about the Central teachers and their classrooms.

“The teachers are very adept at getting the kids excited about the material they’re covering and presenting it in a really interesting, comprehensive way that’s fun. They do an excellent job of keeping everyone on the same page. The classrooms are large (about 30 students each), but the environment is very personal and friendly,” he says. “The best way to prepare students for a college biology class is to get them interested in the sciences and make them understand that it’s something interesting with application to everyday life and the natural world we live in. The teachers are quite good at creating interest in the sciences. The classrooms are filled with posters and different projects—quite a collage of student work.”

Driscoll recommends Science Is Cool to other Rhodes students.

“It’s a great opportunity for biology or chemistry majors to apply what they’re learning by teaching other students. It confirms what you love about the sciences, plus it’s a fun classroom environment and a great contrast to what we do at Rhodes.”

SWEEP

Anyone who wants to know everything about what goes into Memphis storm drains besides rainwater should sign on with the students of Cypress Middle School. Two days a week after school, some 15 students from grades six through eight gather in a classroom with their science teachers, Rhodes geology professor Carol Ekstrom and some of her work-study students to participate in SWEEP, the Storm Water Environmental Education Project. Ekstrom pioneered the program three years ago with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. She was concerned about the residents of the area who live by Cypress Creek, a stream long polluted by chemical plants. This year, Project SWEEP became a lane of the Learning Corridor.

From 2:30-4:30 the middle schoolers, who begin the afternoon with refreshments, work on environmental education projects or take field trips. The classroom walls are papered with their posters promoting ecological concerns such as recycling and clean water. On one table is a model of the Memphis storm drainage system the students created. The last session before the winter holidays, the students took a break from the customary math and science and instead made crystallized Christmas ornaments: Pour Borax into a jar, add hot water, insert a pipe cleaner in the solution and watch the crystals form on it. It’s all science, even the holiday part.

Field trips include a guided tour by a city public works representative to one of the city’s storm drains—the ditches that collect rainwater runoff, not the sewerage system—where they hear about pollution, take water samples and observe water quality to see if any organisms live there. On Earth Day they travel to the Lichterman Nature Center in East Memphis with their environmental education posters and displays of their work.

Cypress even plays its homecoming games at Rhodes’ Fargason Field. After cheering for Cypress at the 2003 game, the middle schoolers picked up trash, analyzed it, graphed it and projected the likelihood that it might end up in storm water drainage.

“This program has gone beyond my greatest hopes in forging relationships between the college and our neighbors,” Ekstrom says. “I think it gives the students a better concept of how complex environmental issues can be, that people are impacted by almost everything. Part of this is for the students to educate their parents, too, for example, to get them to think before pouring engine oil down the storm drain.”

She also sees SWEEP as a service-learning class for her Rhodes students.

“They don’t just talk to middle school students about the polluted water that exists in the Cypress area, they interact with people who live there. Because there are families involved, it gives Rhodes students a better concept of how complex environmental issues can be.”

The Cypress students stay with the program till they move on to high school, and several Rhodes students participate as much as they can.

Elza Crocco, a second-year student from Princeton, NJ, is one of Prof. Ekstrom’s work-study students who’s doing SWEEP a second time this semester. A bit timid at the beginning of her first go-round, she was hooked the minute she met the Cypress students.

“Before I signed on, we went to Cypress as a class and interacted with the kids,” she explains. There were 15-20 outrageously energized kids. I was just astounded. They came up and talked to me. It was just great. I thought, ‘Forget the geology part, I just want to be with the kids!’ They are very bright. They’re thinkers. I can always see their wheels turning. It’s incredible that Prof. Ekstrom has the motivation to get this involved in our lives and the lives of the Cypress students. You learn so much about people in addition to science. It all starts with the environment. If you take care of the environment and make it safe, then you’re taking care of people and future generations.”

Zoo Research

Another new lane of the Learning Corridor—the Outreach for Middle School Students through Zoo Research—was paved last summer to Snowden Middle School. Five eighth-grade graduates, all girls, each conducted research for seven days one-on-one with Thayer Hutcheson ’05 and biology professor Alan Jaslow at the Memphis Zoo and Rhodes.
They studied everything from giraffes to orangutans to pandas, both before and behind the scene.

“Thayer introduced the students to the zoo, methodology, small projects they could do in a day that helped the zoo. Some of that involved coming to campus to do analysis, library research, evaluating Web sites and articles for research,” says Jaslow. “We met regularly, if not daily, and Thayer was with the students all the time. It was a mentoring project. What my student gets out of it is outreach, community service and teaching experience. It became a very good and intensive experience for everyone.”

“The student chose a topic in which she was most interested, like a behavioral study of zebras or an enrichment project with pandas,” says Hutcheson, a biology/psychology bridge major from Houston. “With colobus monkeys, for example, we decided to figure out what we could do to make them have to think and use what they know about different tools to get their food. We took pictures, the student recorded with a stopwatch how long the monkeys spent on each item to get food. Different monkeys have different abilities, so you figure out through trial and error what the developmental level of certain animals is.”

Hutcheson and her students also helped with ongoing research projects in the zoo’s research and conservation department which concentrates mainly on panda nutrition.

“They do feed trials in summer with different types of bamboo,” she says. In spring and summer pandas eat leaves and in fall and winter they mainly eat the culm (stalk). The idea is that the nutritional content of the leaves is higher in spring and summer because the nutrients go out to the leaves, and in winter they go back into culm. The students really got into that. They wanted to know the hows and whys of the animals’ eating habits. They helped record data for research that was important and was actually going to do something. If it’s not useful, it’s boring. In the video monitoring room, they recorded the pandas’ behaviors. It made them feel like ‘I’m really a part of this project.’”

An enrichment project involved the orangutans.

“The orangutans love their blankets,” Hutcheson says. “There is one male who climbs to the top of the platform every morning and covers himself with his blanket. One of the students suggested giving the orangs blankets with different textures to see which ones they liked. They all tried them out and liked a soft fleece one the best. The students loved that. There’s something about coming up with an idea and being able to test it on actual animals at the zoo. They were really excited and couldn’t wait to tell parents what they did that day.

“I loved being around the students,” Hutcheson says. “One of my favorite things is the look on somebody’s face when they get something. They light up. I felt I helped them learn.”

Pink Palace Partnership

This summer, Rhodes will open another lane of the Learning Corridor with the Pink Palace Family of Museums, seven local attractions including the Pink Palace Mansion, a home of pink marble built in the 1920s by supermarket magnate Clarence Saunders. Rhodes faculty and students will team with museum staff to conduct two archaeology programs for Snowden Elementary students at the tenant house of Davies Plantation in East Memphis. Each program, which will last two weeks, will include two days of classroom orientation and eight days of excavation capped off by a field trip to the West Tennessee Agricultural Museum in Milan with its life-sized displays of West Tennessee settlers and their culture.

Middle School Teacher Licensure

Not too long ago, many of today’s middle school teachers were licensed to teach grades 1-8. The new rules make it 1-6. Middle schools have taken seventh and eighth grades out of the equation and created new teaching and learning demands.

Memphis City Schools superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson asked the Memphis Area Teachers Educational Collaborative, of which Rhodes is a member, to create a college-credit program for middle-school teachers to become “highly qualified” in their assigned positions and to help them become more knowledgeable in their fields.

Rhodes went to work on the science component, recruiting four faculty to teach some 20 middle-school science teachers on campus beginning this summer. In fall and spring, classes will be held in the evening, late afternoon and weekends. Two Memphis universities will teach other subjects.

The students’ lives—they are a-changin’. And ours are changed by them.