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Pupils, Partnerships, and Potatoes

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Coordinator, Society for Science & the Public

Last year, for the first time in 14 years, Center High School in Colorado sent students to participate in the regional science fair. The school, located in the poorest school district in the state, surprised others and themselves when they won more than 20 awards there. Additionally, two students qualified to compete at the state science fair and one qualified for I-SWEEEP, an international energy fair.

This was made possible in significant part when Daniel Newmyer, a science teacher at Center, received the SSP Fellowship to start an independent research program at the school. With generous support from Intel, the program provides funding and resources to educators who teach under-resourced students, such as the students at Center where 78% are considered economically disadvantaged. Daniel says their hard work and success sent a message to the community and the state: “When kids with that many challenges excel, something is being done right.”

While Daniel stresses that he can’t claim direct causation, he suspects strongly that this success contributed to the $26 million state grant the school district received to build a new elementary, middle, and high school. The local community recently voted to raise the additional $4 million necessary to receive the grant. Daniel says the school’s science fair success showed taxpayers that the school was doing something great and that, with the right support, they could do even more. SSP came to Center for a site visit prior to the vote to help rally the students, parents, industry, and community to support science.

The state grant will allow Daniel to design a classroom that will facilitate independent research, which is important because, in just its second year, the number of students in the research class has doubled. Students currently need to travel 50 miles to do research that necessitates a bio safety lab, but the grant will allow them to build one of their own. This will help put them on the same level as other schools across the state.

The SSP Fellowship of $8,500 a year and other support is also helping Daniel and the school form community partnerships. “Now we are developing a community that’s not just a group of kids and me as their teacher, but a group of students and their parents and professional research scientists [who] are helping the student’s design their projects,” he says. “Parents of current research students are now not only involved in the students but they are involved at the regional level. There is a higher level of parent involvement, including by some parents who I have never met, and are now aware of and involved in their student’s success.”

Thanks to these partnerships, students are studying how potatoes might cure diabetes at the Colorado State University San Luis Valley Research Center, the premier center for potato research in the country. They are also studying rare species in the John W. Mumma Native Aquatic Species Restoration Facility of the Colorado Division of Wildlife.  With the help of SSP, Daniel is working on building additional partnerships with local chiropractors and Adams State College.

“Part of what I’m trying to do is get the kids out as much as possible and to see as much as possible,” Daniel says, which is why he recently took them on a field trip to Boulder to see the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics, NOAA, and the Wright Paleohydrological Institute. While there, on behalf of their school, they also accepted the “Center for Academic Excellence Award,” which is given to schools with a high population of under-served students that show more than a year’s growth in a year.

“This group of students is setting themselves apart, they’re showing strong commitment, and doing a lot of good things, so they’re turning out to be leaders; leaders in the school and leaders in academics,” Daniel says. “Not all of them were identified as leaders before, but after they’re being pushed and gaining these experiences, they are all stepping up quite a bit.”

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