1/24/2012 4:41:00 PM Program builds curiosity, confidence, partnership
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Rosie Mallet, a St. Mary's Academy senior, and Emma Paustian, a junior, flank Caroline Tennant of Cathedral School during a chemistry experiment. St. Mary's sponsors a year-long science mentorship for fifth grade girls.
Two dozen fifth grade girls found a mystery to solve.
With St. Mary's Academy science students as mentors, the youngsters surveyed a mock crime scene at the downtown school for young women. The 4-foot-something detectives spied a key bit of evidence — spilled liquid. Then it was off to the lab for analysis.
Finding out whether the stuff was an acid or a base led the way to a crime solution and some serious fist-pumping.
The fifth graders and high schoolers meet twice a month through the year for experiments, field trips, guest speakers and just plan fun. Next month, the students will spend the night at St. Mary's. The program is Teaching, Integrating and Exploring Science, known as TIES.
Through the months, fifth graders focus on ecology, geology, chemistry, rocketry, physics and biology.
"We want to open the girls to a lot of different topics," says Nicole Hurner, a St. Mary's senior who has mentored in TIES for four years and hopes to be a teacher.
Taking part in the science program seven years ago is what made Hurner want to attend St. Mary's. "You bond with your fifth grader," she explains. "The point is to get them excited about science." Six mentors and student directors went through the program as fifth graders.
TIES mentors are not just science whizzes. They're athletes, thespians and student government leaders, too.
"It's a diverse community; that's like science," says senior Meghan Daschel, one of three student directors of the program.
"We can show people that science is fun," says senior Erin Patridge, another director. "Teaching others is a great thing," adds director Frances McCaslin, also a senior. "When I love something and see the fifth graders love it as well, I feel I'm passing down the excitement."
St. Mary's students look upon being a TIES mentor as a prestigious responsibility. Rakiyah Johnson, a senior, always wanted to join, but lacked time until now.
"I want the girls to know that in high school you can be cool and do science," says Johnson, whose favorite St. Mary's class so far is honors chemistry. She hopes to be a physician.
TIES shows vividly that science is a group venture, not a solitary pursuit. The fifth graders work in pods and are urged to share their discoveries to further the common good.
The young girls progress from painfully shy to gregarious as the year goes on. "My favorite parts are doing all the experiments and hanging out with all the people," says Makiah Roberts, a fifth grader from Holy Redeemer School in North Portland.
The program, in its 15th year, was the brainchild of a St. Mary's student who wanted to get girls excited for high school science. TIES, which has proven popular, is seen as a way to help girls gain confidence in a field that in the past was ruled by men.
Catholic grade schools nominate two fifth grade girls and St. Mary's picks names out of a box randomly. Usually, there are twice as many applicants as spots. For those not picked, St. Mary's offers a summer session of TIES.
Longtime faculty leader of TIES is Maureen Daschel — Meghan's mom — who has taught at St. Mary’s since 1984 and was named Outstanding Classroom Teacher by the Oregon Science Teachers Association last year.
While the fifth graders tuck into fruit and crackers, Maureen Daschel takes the mentors aside and reminds them to collect, organize, marshal and command — all in the name of safety and science. Then the veteran teacher steps back and allows her proteges to run the experiments, prepared to step in if needed.
"I like that the high school students get to be leaders," she says, a massive periodic table looming behind her. "This program is as much about self esteem for everyone as science. The fifth graders can ask questions and meet role models. I want them to be people who aren't afraid to try things."
In addition to science lessons, the fifth graders hear the stories of some famous women in science. The emphasis seems to have some impact. Forty-one percent of the St. Mary's class of 2011 said they planned to pursue science or math in college.