City schools' project to combine thinking, tinkering

June 15, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Before the students ponder their first math problem or perform their first experiment, they'll go camping overnight -- to build team spirit and help them discover science in nature.

When school starts, they'll lead a llama along trails, trawl for fish with nets, test the Chesapeake Bay's water quality, puzzle over laboratory experiments side by side with people who make a living doing just that.

They'll be learning math and science in a way unlike any other in Baltimore schools, as part of the Ingenuity Project. The 7-year project will start in August with 60 sixth-graders from throughout Baltimore and eventually expand to more than 400 students in grades six to 12.

The 113,000-student city school system's latest experiment, bankrolled with $100,000 for the first year by the Abell Foundation and the National Science Foundation, will begin at West Baltimore and Southeast middle schools.

It's designed to encourage thinking -- and tinkering, says Kate Walsh, Abell's education program officer.

"If you read about what makes great scientists, you'll find a lot of them were not great students," she said.

"They know how to think and imagine and ask the right questions. We're looking for kids who can tinker, who can imagine."

Along with studying an advanced curriculum in three classes a day with the same two teachers, students will work on computers regularly, use state-of-the art lab equipment and compete in national science and math contests.

The effort grows out of concerns about the shortage of students -- particularly inner-city minorities -- equipped for an increasingly ZTC technological work world.

Narrowing the gap between city students' progress and national aswell as international standards begins with an assumption underlying the latest effort:

In an age of videos, computers and Nintendo, holding youngsters' interest and nurturing their minds requires a lot more than traditional classes built around testing hypotheses with Bunsen burners, working on endless equations and wearing out pencil erasers.

Students, who must apply by June 30, will be asked to demonstrate their creativity, imagination and ability to think critically from the beginning. Unlike traditional citywide magnet schools or programs, applicants will not be judged primarily on test scores and teachers' recommendations, but on less traditional criteria.

Among them: an application and essay describing their interest in science and math, what they like about school and how they would change it, and a project in which they'll be asked to build something from raw materials.

Children who like building things,solving puzzles, watching "Star Trek" or reading science fiction would make ideal candidates, the program's coordinators say.

But in a poor city school system, even the most promising students sometimes lose interest because of a shortage of basic supplies and little link between the classroom and the world outside.

"We have some kids who are doing experiments out of bathrooms, with no real foundation," Ms. Walsh said.

At a time when students often face considerable criticism because being smart isn't cool, the Ingenuity Project aims to keep young whizzes together to encourage and inspire one another.

"This is one of things that really makes it unique. Rather than drawing a kid here and a kid there and pulling them together after school, now they'll be doing it in the schools together," said Andrea Bowden, the school system's math and science coordinator.

Sheila Kolman, West Baltimore Middle's principal, predicts the project will help convince students that math and science aren't boring.

"We realized long ago that one of the things we have to do with middle school students is to have them think, and is there a better way to teach kids how to think than through math and science?" she said.

"We emphasized reading perhaps exclusively over many, many years, and in recent years we've looked at math and science as a way to truly energize the mind in the middle school youngsters."

Like the 4-year-old partnership between the city's Barclay School and the private Calvert School, the new effort will add a grade each year.

MEETING TONIGHT

Applications for the Ingenuity project will be accepted from fifth-grade students throughout Baltimore, as well as their teachers, parents or other sponsors until June 30. A public meeting on the experiment has been scheduled for 7 tonight in the school board meeting room on the first floor of school headquarters at 200 E. North Avenue. For information or applications, call 547-1488.

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