Early Excitement

Genetics professor Audrey Gasch BS’94 loves questions. It’s her job as a scientist to ask questions and then seek answers. She also has a passion for helping others ask questions, including some of Wisconsin’s youngest future scientists.

Science outreach and public service have always been important to Gasch. When she was setting up her lab in 2004, she began looking for ways to take her love of science beyond campus. She found the perfect partner in Dolly Ledin, program director of Adult Role Models in Science (ARMS), a program of the UW–Madison-based Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement.

ARMS works with campus partners and local elementary and middle schools to help teachers develop more robust science education and get students excited about science by connecting them with role models.

Within just one hour of her first call, Ledin connected Gasch to 10 different schools in Madison. Some dozen years later, Gasch remains as passionate as ever about enhancing science education for kids. Teachers, Gasch says, especially at the elementary level, don’t always have the capacity or training to teach a robust science curriculum.

“Public schools are under so much pressure on all fronts,” says Gasch. “It’s harder for teachers to be innovative in those areas if they are not a major point of focus.”

So Gasch and other campus scientists partner with teachers to help them build curriculum and bring new projects to classrooms.

The learning is a two-way street, notes entomology professor Sean Schoville, another ARMS participant.

“The teachers have incredible knowledge of how to get kids excited and to engage them in hands-on teaching,” he says. “So they have, in turn, taught me quite a bit about teaching.”

Melina Lozano, a teacher at Hawthorne Elementary in Madison, has partnered with ARMS for years and says working with UW scientists has made a big impact on her two-thirds bilingual classroom.

“My students need as many high-quality educational experiences with adults as possible,”
says Lozano. “And working with talented young scientists at UW–Madison has been an indispensable experience.”

An important part of the ARMS outreach team is the many undergraduates who work with the schools on a weekly basis. Students like senior biology major Hanna Peterson, who has been involved with school science outreach since she took a service learning course taught by Dolly Ledin.

Peterson, who also does science outreach at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, says that the most important thing is to create excitement.

“A lot of times, Dolly tells us we just want you to go get the kids excited,” Peterson says. “Do your best, get your science point across, try to teach them some things—but just get them engaged in science. Make them want to learn more. Which I think is a really cool approach!”

Building excitement and curiosity, Gasch says, is the trick to connecting young minds to science.

“The main goal isn’t to just learn facts,” Gasch says. “I care about kids being able to learn about a fact and then think about it critically. My main goal is to use science as a tool to teach critical thinking.”

Gasch is developing a new program called “Ask a Scientist.” The premise is simple: Get kids excited about science by encouraging them to continually ask questions, and then recruit UW scientists to help answer those questions. She piloted the program last year at Lowell Elementary and now is working to expand it.

“It’s like having a science pen pal,” says Gasch.