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Giving Kids a Boost in Math and Science

April 25, 2007 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Unlike many of their classmates, Eugene Mason and Dominique Barber were unfazed by the size of Evanston Township High School when they arrived there last fall as freshmen. As participants in Project EXCITE, they started going to the high school, and even Northwestern University, as third graders and continued through eighth grade.

An innovative collaboration of Northwestern University, Evanston Township High School (ETHS) and Evanston/Skokie School District 65, EXCITE was created by the University and the two Evanston school districts seven years ago in an effort to close the academic achievement gap between minority and non-minority students.

Specifically, it aims to increase the number of minority high school students taking honors and advanced placement math and science. To do that, it provides academically talented minority students from grades three through eight a solid foundation in math and science.

In the bargain, it creates a peer group of students that values school success and the hard work it takes to achieve it.

At the heart of Project EXCITE is the belief that preparing students for accelerated science and math learning needs to begin early.

“We're telling Evanston and the world beyond that closing the minority achievement gap takes time,” says Northwestern's George Peternel, who directs EXCITE from the University's Center for Talent Development (CTD).

“Efforts to close the minority achievement gap with a pull-out program or one year of special instruction or an intensive program that begins the summer before students enter high school haven't worked,” he adds. So EXCITE takes a different approach.

“We try to 'hook' academically talented minority children at age nine or ten by exposing them to 'fun' math and science experiences,” says Peternel. “As they mature, we continue making learning fun, but we also work hard to give them the math and science understanding that they will need to succeed in accelerated classes at the high school.”

Because EXCITE begins in the third and continues through eighth grade it is not inexpensive. Since its inception, the program has worked with approximately 150 students. This academic year, Northwestern contributed $200,000 in funding, and the two school districts provided $24,000. An ETHS parent donated an additional $10,000.

Peternel and ETHS science and math teachers Mark Vondracek, John Benson, Antonio Marquez and others are betting that Eugene Mason, Dominique Barber and the 13 other District 65/Project EXCITE graduates who arrived at ETHS in the fall, and who are taking advanced and honors courses, will help demonstrate the effectiveness of a long-term approach.

While Dominique and Eugene can't say that EXCITE helped them earn their way into honors math and science, they can recall the excitement they felt as EXCITE third graders.

Eugene remembers activities he did with Legos that explored volume, symmetry and other concepts, “although I didn't think of them as about math at the time,” he says. Dominique recalls a chemistry-related experiment involving exploding balloons.

They also speak about friends they made from other Evanston schools and even schools around the country as a result of EXCITE. Their parents recall the motivation their children demonstrated. “Eugene didn't want to miss a single (EXCITE) class, even after a full day of school or on Saturdays,” Connie Mason says of her son.

“We've succeeded in creating a cohort of minority students who support one another's intellectual curiosity,” says Northwestern's Peternel. “And that's an important part of EXCITE.”

A major goal was for EXCITE students to complete Algebra I by the end of 8th grade. “This year all but one of the program's eighth graders are taking Algebra I. And the student who isn't has already completed it. She's taking honors geometry,” Peternel boasts.

To date, Project EXCITE has touched the lives of approximately 140 District 65 minority students from a variety of Evanston K-8 schools. This year about 120 are enrolled, and many District 65 parents express interest in getting their children into the selective program.

“That's a sign that we're doing something right," says Lisa Bernstein, a third grade teacher at Rhodes Magnet School who has been involved in EXCITE from its inception.

At virtually no cost to their parents, EXCITE participants attend weekly enrichment classes at the high school and take Saturday science and math classes at Northwestern's Center for Talent Development. Middle school students participate in the CTD's summer program, taking courses of their choosing in math or science.

Eugene chose Algebra I, a science laboratory course and classes in aerodynamics, computers and robotics. “Some of those summer courses really helped me out in learning the basics for the math and science I'm taking at ETHS today,” he says.

“EXCITE would never have happened without the support of Northwestern and Northwestern's Center for Talent Development director Paula Olszewski-Kubilius,” says ETHS physics teacher Vondracek.

Vondracek and ETHS math teachers John Benson and Ron Sellke (now retired) went to Northwestern's Olszewski-Kubilius, a national leader in gifted education, in 1999 in hopes of developing a program that would bring more students of color into the high school's rigorous chemistry/physics program. The result was Project EXCITE.

Vondracek also points to the contributions of Rhodes Magnet School teacher Lisa Bernstein who has helped him and EXCITE instructors from Northwestern and ETHS work more effectively with young students.

“What Lisa Bernstein adds to the process are the skills of a master elementary school teacher whose involvement helps EXCITE instructors adapt to the ways and learning styles of third grade students,” Peternel adds.

She recently accompanied 25 third graders to Northwestern's campus after they completed their school day to take part in hands-on science activities developed by CTD Northwestern Professor Brad Sageman and CTD's Peternel.

In Sageman's earth and planetary sciences laboratory, the youngsters peered at igneous rocks through a state-of-the-art microscope, discovered that studying science could lead to a career in space exploration and compared the Earth to an onion. (“It has layers!” shouted one.)

“I want them to see that science is exciting, and that earth science today isn't just about guys with hammers crawling around in dirt looking for natural mineral and energy resources,” says Professor Sageman.

In talking to the third graders, he emphasizes that geological sciences are about women and men exploring and discovering how Earth works and about better predicting natural processes and the impact of human activities on the planet.

By the time the youngsters finish up their activities in the Professor Sageman's lab, it's 5:15 p.m. “We don't steal a minute away from a child's school time,” says Peternel. “EXCITE is a supplementary program. Participating requires a lot of time and commitment.”

By the time they enter high school, EXCITE students have completed more than 400 enrichment class hours. “That's the equivalent of ten 40-hour weeks of schooling beyond a child's regular school hours,” Peternel says.

Yet -- despite a hectic schedule of high school sports, orchestra, cello lessons and lots of homework -- EXCITE graduate and freshman Eugene Mason finds time to work with students now in EXCITE. With other ETHS student volunteers, he helps out in the weekly after-school science labs that bring the third-graders to the high school.

Eugene also assists EXCITE students at a tutoring center located on Northwestern's campus in CTD's office. Organized by Northwestern sophomore and math/physics major James Kath, the study center is staffed by Northwestern undergraduate volunteers that Kath, a math and physics major, has recruited.

The study center offers two hours of one-on-one tutoring Thursdays to EXCITE students who are looking for extra help, studying for exams or simply like “hanging” with the Northwestern students as they do their homework. “I think we're good role models,” Kath says.

An ETHS graduate, Kath enjoys working with the bright, middle school students who come to the center for help and camaraderie. “If it sometimes looks more like a social group than a tutoring group, that's okay,” he says. “We're trying to help build a peer culture where it's natural for these really bright kids to succeed academically.”

Math teacher Benson expects EXCITE to succeed and looks forward to the day it makes a dent in diversifying his accelerated math classes. A veteran teacher with 38 years at ETHS, he promised the first Project EXCITE third graders he worked with that he would be at the high school to teach them multivariable calculus.

“It won't be long now,” he says.