By Grove Potter
Published January 25, 2017
BUFFALO, N.Y. — What happens when the students become the teachers? In a popular Buffalo Public Schools program led by the University at Buffalo, magic happened.
The Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Program (ISEP) — a collaboration of the UB, SUNY Buffalo State College and the Buffalo Museum of Science with the Buffalo Public Schools — exposes middle and high school students to science and engineering.
Part of the program — co-led by UB's National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) and UB's Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) — brings together teachers and students to work on geographic information systems, or GIS. During this effort, program managers found that the role of teacher and student reversed, with middle school students helping to teach the teachers how to use mapping apps on their smartphones.
The effort showed such strong results, it just won a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to continue operating for three more years.
“For one part of this activity we obtained smartphones with GPS units in them so that the kids can take them into the field,” said Joseph A. Gardella Jr., PhD, ISEP project lead and a SUNY Distinguished Professor and the John and Frances Larkin Professor of Chemistry at UB. “We had teachers and students mapping invasive species at Tifft Nature Preserve.”
“But what happened in the summer activity is that the teachers realized the students could do more on the programming side than they could. The teachers were depending on the students to get things set up and it had a synergistic effect,” he said.
The federal government liked that synergy and the ability to measure its impact on learning, and awarded the grant.
“The students became sophisticated participants,” Gardella said. “That convinced the NSF that this really was a unique situation.”
The benefit of having students and teachers in the same training programs could prove to be a significant discovery. “This is a focused, small piece, but it’s unique. If you bring teachers in the class along with students, it’s more complicated but the outcomes are way better,” Gardella said.
The focus on GIS has multiple goals. First, it increases the students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), the overall goal of the ISEP program. And second, the job market for people trained in GIS technology is growing fast. It also plays into UB's research expertise.
"UB has made strategic investments over the years to build a robust and diverse research enterprise in GIS science," said Ling Bian, UB professor of geography, director of the UB site of the NCGIA and co-principal investigator of the grant. "This grant helps us fulfill part of our mission, which includes promoting educational outreach for students and professional development for educators."
“In addition to software companies, environmental companies have huge GIS sections. Urban planners, planning and environmental offices need people in GIS because they don’t use paper maps anymore,” Gardella said. “In addition, medical researchers use GIS to track diseases.”
Gardella said the goal is to bring the ISEP program to all 58 Buffalo public schools. While the latest grant funds one element of the whole program, they are applying for eight grants a year for other parts. He sees the success of the program is as part of the region’s economic transformation and part of UB’s role as a major research institution.
“We have people here, and if we get people ready for those jobs, they will be here,” he said. “I think everybody in this community wants to have a chance for those jobs.”
“It’s a unique, nationally significant program.”
The program aligns with the mission of CEI, which is committed to advancing the scholarship of teaching and learning through integrated services, education, research and development related to university teaching, learning and assessment. The director of CEI is Xiufeng Liu, PhD, professor in the Graduate School of Education, is a co-principal investigator of the grant.
In addition to Gardella, Bian and Liu, other co-principal investigators from UB are Sandro Sodano, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Counseling, School, and Educational Psychology; and John Cerne, PhD, professor of physics.
ISEP has served almost 6,000 students in class, in after school programs and in summer camps and research, as well as hundreds of teachers in professional development.