October 2010

The School at Columbia University’s Science Expo

Science-Expo-2A Transformative Experience


The School at Columbia University is only seven years old, and is faced with the ambitious task of providing pre-high school education of the caliber that has made its university partner so esteemed— without competitive admissions. A lottery-based school, where 50 percent of our students come from Harlem, Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side, and the other half have parents who work at Columbia University, we arguably are one of the most diverse independent schools in New York City. Our students create a robust community, but their parents don’t always share experiences, so one of our highest priorities is to bond our community around the intellectual mission of the school. We have offered many opportunities for parent engagement, with varying degrees of success. Dana Pe’er’s idea had a ripple effect, first to our faculty, then to Columbia scientists and finally to our children and their parents.

We know that understanding and appreciating science is life changing, both for children whose parents work in academia and for children whose parents have not completed high school. We also know that teaching science from a text does not begin to electrify children in the ways that current scientists talking about real questions and research does. And, we also know that when real scientists share their work with faculty, it enhances the skill sets, perspectives and energy of an already talented group. We had lofty goals for our science exposition, and they were exceeded, leaving us hungry to exploit the potential of our initial relationship with practicing scientists.

The event’s success sparked a desire on both sides to continue the collaboration between researcher and science teacher. The science teachers particularly enjoyed the opportunity to expand their knowledge of the latest scientific discoveries through their interaction with the leading researchers across science and engineering.

At the end of the day, we had many more children considering science as a career, our own teachers totally re-energized about the importance of their work and scientists appreciating the complexity of taking sophisticated ideas and demonstrating them to children. This was one of those unforgettable moments in a child’s education. It is clear to everyone that science in our school is a priority and the work that our volunteer research scientists did was transformative. 

Annette Raphel is the head of the School at Columbia University.


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