Project EXCITE cultivates math, science skills
Northwestern, Evanston schools team to provide foundation for advanced science, math
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, as third graders and continued through eighth grade.
An innovative collaboration of Northwestern, 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 in math or science.