Learning From the Pros

Learning From the Pros

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Eighth-grader David Fabian recalls barely being able to contain his excitement when he looked down at the item on his desk. “I had been waiting for that moment for weeks,” he says about the long-anticipated seventh-grade science class. “We were actually going to dissect a brain!” A sheep’s brain, to be exact.

It was the culminating assignment in Harlem Academy’s innovative partnership with the Columbia University Department of Neuroscience, which brings scientists into the classroom to lead a two-month study of the brain as part of the seventh-grade human biology curriculum.

“I had been considering science as a career, but I wasn’t really sure about it until then,” says David, who credits his time with the Columbia neuroscientists for helping make up his mind. “Working with them made me more interested in science.”

As part of our customized program, students design, conduct, and interpret a variety of weekly experiments that show the connection between the scientific method and making discoveries about the human body. “I did a knee-jerk test, a touch receptor experiment, a pupillary reflex test, and ultimately a full brain dissection,” says Nyah Williams, who is now in eighth grade. “I learned that everything you do is connected to your brain.”

Many middle-schoolers would like to pursue STEM-related careers, but without access to advanced math and science classes they will be ill-prepared. “I want to make sure there is a space in the STEM pipeline for everyone with a passion and appetite for this work,” says Head of School Vinny Dotoli. “It’s critical not just for their own futures, but for society as a whole. Today’s STEM classes are tomorrow’s cures and innovations. This program illuminates the path.”

Meaningful partnerships with outside professionals engage students, notes Mr. Dotoli.  “Students are motivated when they can draw clear links between science concepts, future career paths, and the impact they can have on the world,” he says.

Eight weeks together in the classroom enables seventh-graders to build real connections with the neuroscientists. Students eagerly pepper them with questions not just about the experiments, but also about their work. “It didn’t feel like I was being taught out of a book,” says Nyah. “I got a more realistic view of science because the neuroscientists do this work to make discoveries that affect real people. Learning from them helped us to imagine ourselves in their role someday.”

Students also visit Columbia University’s medical campus to tour some of the labs and present to the scientists topics they’ve studied.

David finished up the unit thinking about next steps on his path to becoming a scientist – what he’ll study in high school and which colleges have top programs. And Nyah began pondering a future that combines two fields. “I would like to do something involving science, but I also like criminology,” she says. “Maybe I’ll explore forensic science.”

Whatever fields David, Nyah, and future Harlem Academy students ultimately pursue, working with Columbia neuroscientists opens their eyes to potential careers, demystifies an intimidating field of study, and serves as a vital gateway for the next generation.

To learn more about Harlem Academy’s partnerships with professionals, click here.