Improving science education in America a matter of mentoring

by Eric Gorton


Cory Cleland has seen some pretty impressive research performed by high school students. The JMU neuroscientist has also seen some disappointing work and he knows there are students who have potential but don't give science a chance.

In each case, he said, a little bit of mentoring could go a long way toward making the good projects better, raising the level of mediocre work and inspiring students who only view science in unflattering stereotypes.

"One of the things I have observed is that the students sometimes have good science, good ideas, but they're clearly not well mentored," said Cleland, who has been judging high school science fairs the past four years, including the past two Intel International Science and Engineering Fairs.

One of the main shortcomings Cleland sees at science fairs is the inability of many students to present their work in meaningful ways. "It's just little things like, don't put the key statement of the entire poster down at the bottom, right next to a table," he said.

Another problem Cleland sees is students talking about their projects but not making a connection between what they say about their work and what they show on their posters. "Science is all about the data," he said. "And this is true even in college, students think the words have meaning. They don't. It's the data. What you take away from a graph—that has meaning. It would take half an hour with a student who is willing to listen to significantly improve the project."

Cleland has already had a hand in helping seven or eight high school students, including his daughter, with their research over the past several years. He worked with a student from Harrisonburg High School a couple years ago before she went to college and he is currently working with five students from the Massanutten Regional Governor's School in Mount Jackson. In the future, he hopes to develop a more formal summer program for high school students who are interested in research. "We have faculty here who are really focused on learning and teaching. It's a natural fit for us to be doing this," he said.

Ideally, such a program would also involve college researchers mentoring high school students and even top high school researchers mentoring their peers. "It's not that hard. It's just a matter of helping students to see what the logic is. Writing science is actually storytelling," Cleland said.

And perhaps Cleland will be able to spark the interests of some students who don't think science is for them. "Students who are not strong high school students, they're just not interested in science because memorizing is boring, which bottom line is most of high school science. And it shouldn't be," Cleland said. "Get them out in the field. Mentoring can benefit the top kids a great deal, but there's also the potential that others may benefit. Some of the students we might have lost otherwise."

By Eric Gorton ('86, '09M), JMU Public Affairs

Published: Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Last Updated: Thursday, August 3, 2017

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