Project CRYSTAL brings middle-school students to UW-Madison lab

Oct. 22, 2009

by Kiera Wiatrak

University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry professor Hazel Holden and Edgewood Campus School middle-school science teacher Daniel Toomey met for the first time because Holden's daughter was in Toomey's science class.

Neither anticipated that less than three years after their first encounter at the Madison school, they'd be working closely to bridge the gap between middle-school science and groundbreaking research, and to get young adolescents excited about chemistry before high school.

"We just thought we've got to teach chemistry at an earlier age, and we've got to make it exciting," Holden says. "By the time you get to high school, you've kind of set the path for what you want to do."

Realizing the unusual potential a partnership between a middle-school science teacher and a biochemistry researcher would have for both the teenagers and Holden's lab, the two teamed up to form Project CRYSTAL (Crystallographers Researching with Young Scientists: Teaching And Learning).

The duo was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) last April to bring six students from Edgewood Campus School to research X-ray crystallography alongside graduate students in Holden's lab.

Six carefully selected students began their research at the beginning of the 2009-10 school year. They make the trip to the UW-Madison campus once a week to assist Holden and the graduate students in real-world research.

It gives young students an opportunity to learn that the world of science extends far beyond textbook experiments.

"A lot of what we do as science educators in K-12 is pretty much the cookbook labs where you know the results, and that's not science," Toomey says. "What the kids are realizing is you have to observe, and you wait for your results, and they're probably not what you expected. I think that's the beauty of this for them, that they get a chance to realize that there's not always a clear-cut answer."

Project CRYSTAL also gives graduate students a unique teaching opportunity.

"TA-ing the basic chemistry class with undergrads is completely different than trying to teach them," says biochemistry graduate student Amanda Carney. "It's an interesting way to try to think about things from a completely different perspective."

Holden adds that the teaching assistants serve as role models for the students, since they are closer in age than most of their traditional teachers.

"It's interesting to see what people actually do," says seventh-grader Manpreet Kaur. "I've always liked science, but I think it gives me a little bit more knowledge, and I'm definitely more into it than I was before."

Every week, the six students blog about their experiences in the lab at http://www.projectcrystal.org/crystallographers-researching-with-young-scientists-4/project-crystal-blog

Because Holden's lab only has room for six middle-schoolers, Toomey and Holden looked for ways to expose the rest of his students to chemistry.

In the NSF grant, the pair noted they would develop modules to teach a chemistry unit to Toomey's seventh- and eighth-graders.

The module includes an analogy comparing ice cream flavors to the periodic table, an introduction to the structure of molecules, compounds and atoms, and most notably, the chemistry of sugars and carbohydrates.

"My motivation was just seeing kids drink a lot of energy drinks and soda after soda," Toomey says. "We want to educate kids about making healthy choices so that when they're in whatever setting they're in, they'll use their chemistry knowledge to make healthy choices."

Toomey and Holden intend to have chemistry of sugars modules on the Web by the end of the month for other middle-school teachers to use in their classrooms.

The final component of the NSF grant is community outreach. Through personal connections, Toomey was able to hook up with former UW-Madison basketball star and NBA All-Star player Devin Harris, who hosts an annual basketball camp for underprivileged youth in Milwaukee.

Harris, who infuses education with sports at his camp, invited Toomey and a few UW-Madison biochemistry graduate students to teach at the camp for a day.

Last August, Toomey and the graduate students made the trip to Milwaukee and taught 360 kids ages 7-15 about the chemistry of sugar and its nutritional ramifications. They conducted experiments and handed out posters to remind the students of the high sugar content in soda and energy drinks.

Toomey, who plans to return to teach at Harris's camp annually, extended his collaboration with Harris to include a "Learn with Devin Harris" segment on the Project CRYSTAL Web site. The segment teaches science in the context of sports.

The current segment challenges kids to calculate Harris's speed in an on-court video clip. Toomey and Holden continue to collaborate with the Devin Harris Foundation — 34 Ways to Assist — to seek additional outreach opportunities.