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EDUCATION: Taking Science into the Streets

Beatrice Paez

NEW YORK, Jul 12 2010 (IPS) - A group of 80 students, broken into smaller groups with their notebooks in tow, troop through the boroughs of New York City to survey the produce that populates farmers’ markets and grocery stores in their neighbourhoods. Across the world, a similar image emerges in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where female students are learning to grow edible mushrooms in their villages.

Students like Vivienne Cain who participate in the Harlem Children Society’s Nutrition and Healthy Living project have been looking at the cost, appearance and size of the fruits and vegetables, as well as their availability. The goal was to correlate these differences with the neighbourhood’s demographics and socioeconomic status and rates of nutrition-related disease.

The teens discovered that the neighbourhood with the worst quality produce was Manhattan’s Washington Heights, home to large Hispanic community with a generally low level of formal education.

Fusing her passion for sociology and anthropology, Cain expressed hope that students could apply the data gathered to examine the particular areas where obesity is rampant – altogether, about one in three U.S. citizens is considered obese.

“Hopefully we can spread obesity awareness where nutritional values are lacking,” she told IPS.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Children Society (HRC) project in Tanzania is focused on the growing patterns of mushrooms and how they can help contribute to the local economy. Other students are engaged in social issues that directly affect their communities – HIV/AIDS, alcoholism and agriculture.

Coming from underprivileged households and under-resourced high schools, these children are now ahead of the curve as they venture into research projects, fronted by top-ranking scientists, engineers, mathematicians worldwide. Most beneficiaries of the mentorship and internship programmes in the U.S. are of African-American (40 percent) and Hispanic (26 percent) descent, but there also initiatives that engage Native Americans (16 percent) on reservations.

HRC is not-for-profit science programme geared at nurturing the talents of aspiring scientists, giving students the rare opportunity of pursuing hands-on research. This training ground for future Einsteins and Marie Curies attributes its humble beginnings to Dr. Sat Bhattacharya, a molecular geneticist and cancer research scientist who had a simple but innovative vision, and started by taking three students under his wing.

The pilot project began in New York and has multiplied to hosting more than 750 students. The programme is now operational in 12 countries, spanning five continents; 350 of its students are from countries such as Mexico, Honduras, Ethiopia, India and Malaysia.

“I initially thought of just reaching out to people in the neighbourhood and those who are under-resourced and under- served in the community,” Bhattacharya told IPS. “But the concept grew and now there is a huge organisation in itself.”

Shaveene, one of his early students, is currently studying nursing at Columbia University. About 20 percent of HCS students attend Ivy League schools.

He continues to dream big, and is at the stage of planning for the establishment of a university-type setting that will act as a support system for HCS students who are entering post-secondary education.

“There are high drop-out rates, especially for the Hispanic, African and Native Americans – as high as 60 percent during the first three years,” he told IPS.

Bhattacharya imagines a space where students can continue to have access to hands-on research and hopes to extend the programme’s reach to include other members of the community and their parents.

Word traveled along the corridors of schools in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, where teachers have either nominated or vouched for students expressing an inclination towards science. For Elena Feldman, currently a junior in high school, her curiosity for science runs in her genes. Learning about the programme through her older brother, she said it has helped her zero in on an ambition: she wants to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Rubbing elbows with elite scientists has been a highlight of the experience for Feldman, where she and her partner showcased their project and won an award at Sigma Xi, a scientific research society that meets annually to discuss new developments in science and technology.

The students received some words of wisdom last week from Nobel Laureate Sidney Altman, a molecular biologist who studied RNA, at an induction ceremony to celebrate their involvement in the programme. “Never give up the habit of asking questions…there are no stupid questions,” Altman stressed.

HCS is oriented towards applying a community perspective. Dr. Rani Roy, the coordinator of the nutrition project, explained to IPS that, “The awareness and nutrition education should first affect their immediate families, and then the communities with the science fair.”

Every September the urban streets of Harlem are lined with projects for the science fair and festival, where students’ families and members of the community can get engaged with the students’ work.

“Even professors from college come and they might get interested in you and your work,” Feldman explained.

For the programme to be sustainable, Bhattacharya emphasised that “the students should be able to bring it back to their community.” He added, “The most rewarding is when I see students already giving back.”

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