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Caltech volunteers making a difference in local K-12 classrooms

Caltech Outreach Brings Scientists Into Local Classrooms

PASADENA, Calif.--Holding a vibrating tuning fork close to the lip of a PVC pipe, high school junior Kelsey Peterson bends close, suddenly saying, "I hear it!" She is trying to find the speed of sound indirectly, using her own measurements and a chain of logic she must forge for herself. She has learned that, as in a pipe organ, the cavity of her PVC pipe is an acoustic resonator, and the change in volume she hears tells her that it has reached the right length to resonate at the tuning fork's frequency.

But how can she vary the size of the cavity? This challenge is one of many she confronts in the inquiry-based physics lab of Gabrielino High School physics teacher Kevin McClure. (The solution: leave one end of the pipe in water, partially filling the cavity.) "When we get to the labs, I want it to be an authentic investigative experience," he says. "My ability to run inquiry-based labs has come directly as a result of my partnership with Dr. Sunil Golwala." Golwala is an assistant professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, who volunteers with others in his lab to help in McClure's classroom about twice a month.

This partnership between a high school physics teacher and Caltech researchers is part of the Caltech Classroom Connection (CCC), which aims to create sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships between Caltech volunteers and local educators. Started in 2002, the program is currently expanding with the help of a four-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The CCC complements Caltech's other outreach programs by bringing Caltech people and resources into classrooms in Pasadena and beyond.

"The best partnerships go both ways--a really motivated teacher with enthusiastic volunteers," says CCC codirector James Maloney. "We're getting more and more volunteers returning."

Golwala says, "I think it's a good match. I like teaching and going into high schools. We kind of live in an ivory tower. It's nice to get out and see what it's really like. The thing I like about the CCC is that it really is so adaptable. You can arrange with the teacher how you want to work. We just figure we have better demos than the typical high school teacher.

"It's good for you personally and it's good to have on your grant," Golwala says. "At least in physics, funding agencies like the National Science Foundation are happy to hear about outreach. There are always a couple of students who are clearly going to end up in science, and it's nice to encourage them."

On this day Golwala extends the lesson in sound waves, explaining that physicists use similar properties to understand quantum mechanical waves in atoms. Student Andy Tholt throws Golwala the kind of layman's question he wouldn't often hear from his own students: "Why would you want to know the position of an electron?"

"I watch the volunteers interact and there's no condescension," McClure says. "They really try to draw out knowledge and help students see the connections. I've seen them grow in how they work with the kids."

At McKinley Elementary School, graduate student John Meier fields even more basic questions, from the third-grade class of teacher Stacy Williams. "It's amazing how responsive they are," Meier says. "At third grade they'll tell you everything they know about a subject, and they're going to ask you every question they have about it."

Williams says, "The students look forward to the scientists coming in. They love having a relationship with another positive adult. The second graders are saying, 'We can't wait until third grade, when we do science experiments.'"

Third-grade teacher Jen Gahlmann agrees. "The kids love it. They sense that somebody else is coming in and caring about them." McKinley Elementary is just a few blocks from Caltech, but through their visits the volunteers bridge a much larger gulf. "The kids see that scientists aren't these scary people in lab coats," she says. "It gets them thinking that science is neat and interesting and cool. I think it's good to get them early."

"The kids absolutely adore the volunteers," Gahlmann says. "As a scientist, when are you ever going to get treated like a rock star?"

John Avery
Caltech Public Releations

Generous funding provided by Howard Hughes Medical Institute,
Moore Hufstedler Funds, The Mattel Children's Foundation and The National Science Foundation

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