Fires in the Mind

Proof that intelligence is infectious

This morning I came across some wonderful evidence about the power of engaging students in math and science that has clear importance in the “real world.” (Thanks to the Educator Network ning for the tip!)

This project started with Andrew Conlan, a scholar at the University of Cambridge in England who wanted to mathematically model the spread of infectious disease in elementary schools. What better research assistants than local teenagers, he reasoned, to help create and administer questionnaires directly to the children involved?

Conlan already had access to students age 13 to 15 and their teachers through the Motivate Project, which uses videoconferencing to join dialogues between students and working mathematicians. It was just one more step for him to turn those conferences into work sessions in which students honed kid-friendly questions investigating how younger children’s socialization patterns affect the spread of everything from chickenpox to swine flu.

With their local access and their rapport with younger kids, the student researchers collected data that Conlan calls “unrivalled in scope, size and detail.” Together they sampled 75 complete primary school classes from 11 different schools, with nearly a 90 per cent response rate. After school and during lunch period, they processed the results. And they grasped the epidemiological concepts, too. At year’s end, they visited Cambridge to present their data before the Applied Math department there.

This all took place in England, home of terrific sites like the Motivate Project and “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here” where working scientists interact with students. Here in the U.S., I’ve seen comparable collaborations with local university researchers play out at High Tech High in San Diego.

So let’s set out to prove that intelligence can be infectious! I’d like to start a resource list on this blog of sites where teachers anywhere could go to match up their students with serious research in the field. I’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind if you send me a suggestion we can use.


3 Responses to “Proof that intelligence is infectious”

  1. Ren St. says:

    I love the implications of this idea. Place-based exercises where students can see their impact on the world at large greatly increase their input and pride in their work, both big incentives to keep working on a particular problem and learning about it.

    In my current work as an English student teacher, one of the ways in which my mentor teacher employs this technique is having our honors Shakespeare students pare down a Shakespeare play for local second graders to perform. The students in the high school interact with their second-grade counterparts throughout the semester to dissect Shakespeare as a group and generate an interest in the bard for those at a young age. We’re starting to have kids in the class who were the elementary counterparts in their own elementary years. Granted, a lack of appreciation for Shakespeare isn’t exactly a community problem on the scale of infectious disease, but the interest of the second graders motivates our high schoolers and gets some really good input from them.

    One program that I hope to have in my community as a teacher, or to start if it isn’t there, is the One Book, One Community program. With special events throughout the school year for students, parents and citizens alike to draw the community together and foster discussion of major human issues, this program appeals to students because there is community involvement. When it is done right anyway.

  2. It’s so cool to think of Shakespeare being passed down through generations of kids that way! At my local public K-5 school here in NYC, the 5th graders always put on a Shakespeare play as a culminating event before “graduating” to middle school, and it’s a big deal to them. As young as kindergarten in that school, little kids are learning the rudiments and vocabulary of dramatic structure and by grades 1-2 are writing their own simple plays for audiences of peers and parents.

  3. Dana T. says:

    What an excellent project!! I am a past research scientist currently completing a graduate program in science education. Last week, I attended a class devoted to increasing motivation among students. A recurring theme that emerged from the discussion was the notion that students must feel that their work ‘matters’ in order to be completely engaged in an activity. Andrew Conlan’s project is a living example of this. Students participating in the project were helping out with real scientific research. They knew that their work mattered! Too often in science classes, students are told to complete mundane ‘experiments’ with pre-defined results. They are intelligent enough to realize that their work does not actually contribute to scientific knowledge, and rarely take such projects seriously. Last week, I took several students out of their normal life sciences class for a special ‘Constructing Initial Models’ lesson in which they were shown real data of Trout populations in the Great Lakes, and asked to explore potential causes of population change. I told the students before beginning that the lesson was part of a project to see how science can be better taught in schools. Their eyes widened with excitement, and their voices became more confident, when they realized that they were taking part in educational ‘research’. As a future science teacher, I hope to design experiments with members of my local community to help students become part of research projects with tangible impacts!

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