GK-12 National Conference Reflections

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NSF's Richard McCourt plays DNA Hero during Banks' abstract presentation

Experiencing the foreign helps one understand their own worldview. Almost everyone notices this when they travel outside of their home country for the first time. Anthropologists and sociologists study “exotic” places and communities for the same reason. Go somewhere “exotic” and all of a sudden the things you once took for granted are different, or all-together eliminated.  Having just left the national GK-12 conference, I am experiencing a similar feeling of clarity. Our Triple Helix approach is unique in that 1) social science is incorporated in the program, and 2) we openly encourage and hope that knowledge flows in both directions. While we want our K-12 students to gain valuable lessons in STEM, we also want our graduate students to think critically about how their assumptions inform their work. Assumptions about the technological progress, social justice, and the intersection of the two.

It was obvious that all of the GK-12 programs were doing fantastic work. That being said, I think there is room to demand more from the resources we dedicate to the cause. To be more direct, I wish I had seen more being done to identify key areas where work being done in the lab can empower the people in the streets. There was a great session on teaching graphing and algebra by using poverty statistics and household income data. It was a great way to tie social justice issues, into an academic subject that is typically used to objectively count apples and find the rate at which an airplane travels to Chicago. But I was hard pressed to find examples where programs went beyond the example, and made their research part of the solution. While I don’t expect DNA Rockstar! to completely close the performance gap, its an example of turning research deliverables into tangible tools that can be utilized in the classroom.

Which brings me to my final point. The 100-pound gorilla in the Hyatt ballroom. The end of GK-12’s funding. As the fellowship sunsets, I am hopeful that a new program will redirect university research budgets to helping solve the problems of underserved communities. GK-12 has achieved great things. But if it must go, then it is time to look at what we want to preserve, and what can be done without. There are parts of our country that could use the resources of major research institutions. It is also time that universities become better neighbors and community partners. More than providing a student population with disposable income, they need to be engaged with their local community and tackle the problems that lie here at home.