Christopher Columbus Awards: News

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Media contact:  Anne Mack  (412) 281-2345  

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Changing Their Worlds

Students discover powerful connections between science and community

Homelessness. Disappearing natural resources. Child safety. Air pollution. Water conservation.

Across America, middle school students are tackling these and other tough issues as participants in the Bayer/NSF Award.

Emphasizing teamwork, science and community interaction, the Bayer/NSF Award challenges sixth, seventh and eighth graders to use science and technology to develop innovative solutions to community problems.

Working in teams of four with the guidance of an adult coach, the students are encouraged to conduct their own research and work with mentors–community leaders, scientists, engineers and other experts. They identify a problem, analyze it, explore solutions, draw conclusions and test the validity of their assumptions, just like adult scientists.

Exciting New Perspectives

It's an approach that appeals to all kinds of kids, opening up a world of opportunity. In the process, the kids interact with their communities like never before. For many, it's their first experience as a volunteer.

This year's 10 semifinalists include a team of inner-city youth at Walden Middle School in Atlanta. The students saw how the application of the scientific method could reduce the hardship experienced by their homeless classmates because of hard-to-access medical and school records.

The team conducted research, evaluated the feasibility of various approaches and developed an innovative clearinghouse as a solution. "This is a real problem for homeless children, and the Walden team has come up with a great idea," says Mary Ann Gleason of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "I don't know of another program like it."

In Boulder, four sixth graders were still feeling anguish over the death of a classmate killed in a traffic accident in an icy crosswalk when they began work on their Bayer/NSF Award entry. To help prevent future tragedies, the students turned to technology for a solution and developed a system of heating coils to be placed below key intersections. "Another student could be killed if the problem is not solved," explained team member Eric Hansford.

During last year's Bayer/NSF Award competition, four Spokane girls looking to wipe out a local source of air pollution became the first recipients of the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant, seed money awarded to help one team implement its solution.

As eighth graders at Sacajewea Middle School, the girls developed a process to recycle local bluegrass into paper, providing an alternative to burning. Now they're working with government officials, environmentalists, farmers, business owners and community leaders to make their idea a reality. "We want to create an alternative that's a winning solution for everyone involved," said team member Lindsey Watts.

A Critical Link for Middle School Students

The link between science and everyday life is a critical one for middle school students. While kids' natural curiosity draws them to scientific discovery, recent studies indicate that by the middle school level, a shift occurs. It is at this point that US students begin to fall behind their peers around the world in science achievement.

"The Bayer/NSF Award motivates middle school students to look at science and their communities like never before," says Sue Swaim, executive director of the National Middle School Association. "It's exactly the kind of experience needed in middle school science education."

Jeff Bostik, coach of a 1998 finalist team from Hyde Park Middle School in Las Vegas, is thrilled with his students' reaction. After his successful experience as a coach in 1997, Bostic now includes the competition as part of his curriculum. "The kids dove into this project; they really worked together. They learned some important lessons about what is and isn't feasible, and how critical solid research is."

For ten teams selected as national finalists, the Bayer/NSF Award experience includes a week-long, all-expense-paid trip to Epcot at the Walt Disney World Resort as part of the Discover Awards for Technological Innovation. While in Florida, the students compete for $36,000 in savings bonds and the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant. And, they attend the Christopher Columbus Academy, a hands-on program in which students work side by side with the scientists, engineers and other innovators at the park.

The Bayer/NSF Award is sponsored by:
Bayer Corporation
as part of its Making Science Make Sense initiative
National Science Foundation
Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation
Discover Magazine