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Randa Flinn’s Students Attend White House Science Fair

Randa Flinn, a 2010 SSP Fellow, is a science teacher at Northeast High School in Oakland Park, Florida who helps students conduct independent student research. Among other successes, two of her students were invited to attend the White House Science Fair this past spring.

What made you decide to apply to be a SSP Fellow?
I originally applied to be a SSP Fellow because the description sounded like my school’s situation was a great fit! [The SSP Fellows Program provides funds and training to selected U.S. science and math teachers of under-resourced students.]I thought the funding would help me promote getting more students doing research!

What is your background in science and research, including what first drew you to science?
Nature was what first drew me to science!  I know it sounds cheesy, but everything from rocks and leaves to birds and fungi excited me! My research background is broad in the biological sciences, but my masters’ research centered around coral reef bleaching.  This required me to learn molecular and immunological techniques, protein analysis, ecological and microbiological methods, more chemistry, how to apply calculus, and much more. This was the most comprehensive science education I had encountered, and is the source of my inspiration and passion for teaching research!

How has being a SSP Fellow impacted your ability to develop a research program?
Being a SSP Fellow has immensely impacted my ability to transform our research program!  The training provided for Fellows in Washington D.C., as well as the exchange of ideas with other Fellows, truly helped me to cement my thoughts on how to run a class with a plethora of independent projects. Support provided by SSP via teleconferences and sharing of experiences ignited ideas that promoted creativity in our program.  Attending the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) for the first time was also an amazing and valuable experience!

The grant funding provides supplies, reagents, incentives, transportation, poster printing, and tools needed for our students to conduct research. It has made it possible for our underserved students to not only participate in research, but to physically be able to get to labs and other places. And pizza!  Let’s not forget the sustenance that keeps teen stomachs supplied so that their brains work!

My school has now designated a class period and even given me an extra “conference” room since my classroom is overrun with projects.  Being a SSP Fellow helped me garner support from my administration, which would have not been possible due to funding limits.  This has allowed the program to evolve into a surprisingly powerful phenomenon at our school and in the community!

Can you describe the progress you have made?
My school went from not having had anyone in decades enter the science fair to having the largest number of entries possible this past year.  For two consecutive years, we were the only public school with more than one winner at our District’s Regional Science Fair (we had 4 last year, and 3 this year); we had a State winner for 2 years in a row; and this year, Kiona Elliott qualified as an Intel ISEF finalist! She placed Fourth in Environmental Science.

Our class has also participated in the computer cybersecurity competition, CyberPatriots, and last year our 6-person team tied for First Place in Florida!  We also had a State speaker for the last 2 years at the Junior Science, Engineering, and Humanities Symposium (JSEHS), and had several 9th and 10th grade students present in the younger division exhibition.

As an afterschool activity, we formed a Lemelson-MIT(L-MIT) InvenTeam that was a spin-off of the research class.  We received the L-MIT grant and in 2012 took our Emergency Water Filtration Station to MIT’s EurekaFest.  This project led to an invitation to the White  House Science Fair for two of my students (Kiona Elliott and Payton Kaar) and me on April 22, 2013. President Obama rode the bike that powered our invention, and the photo of the two girls with President Obama became one of the publicized photos of the White House Science Fair!

Kiona was also selected as a Bezos Scholar and attended the Bezos Scholars Program at the prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival in the summer of 2012.  She and I then chaired a local ideas festival, which we called our STEAM (STEM plus the Arts) + Compassion Ideas Festival.  This yearlong endeavor celebrated science and its role in compassion with school-wide quarterly events, science outreach to five local schools, and an energized community event that was attended by more than 500 people. This event was similar to a TEDTalk, with speakers flown in from Dartmouth, Berkeley, and Duke University; a local professor and author who was once Einstein’s driver in the 1940’s; along with performances by dancers, singers, and jamming rock bands.  It was a benefit that raised funds for all the outreach schools’ science programs, as well as organizations such as Lighthouse for the Blind, Potential Energy (Stoves for Darfur), and the Kiwanis Backpack food program.

Watch a video about the STEAM festival featuring Randa and Kiona:

Our partnerships have grown to include University of Florida Research & Education Center, Florida Atlantic University, Nova Southeastern University, Lynn University, MIT, MIT Alumni Association, Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, City of Oakland Park Commission, Broward County Commission, REEF, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.  These relationships have helped us raise more funds and have helped our students interact with community members.  They have become adept at presenting their research, giving their elevator speech, and relaxed when speaking with larger than life individuals.  As one of the students said, “Science has taught me how to be a better reader, writer, problem solver, collaborator, and speaker!”

Additionally, Payton Kaar, a rising senior, was awarded the Annenberg College Scholarship for $250,000 (one of 10 in the U.S.).  Science research got her there! Kiona Elliott won the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which has no dollar cap, but essentially pays for every possible need! Also, Payton and I were invited to present next fall at the Gifted and Talented Symposium, where we will be teaching teachers how to promote the invention and research process. Finally, our district is now in the process of adding two magnet programs to our school:  Biotechnology and Engineering.  I am helping with development, since the success our students have had in research legitimizes the rationale for our school having such programs. This is phenomenal for our students, as these programs promise to provide even more opportunities for bright futures!

What advice would you have for other individuals attempting to increase interest in science in their communities and nurture students through the research process?
My advice to increase interest in science and research is to let the students do the advertising! Really cool student-designed T-shirts and school wide activities (like a Laser Light Music & Math Show) where the research students were ushers and “bouncers” got a bunch of students asking how they could join THAT club! Getting in touch with university faculty and developing relationships took cold calling and introductory emails, which are not always comfortable at first. Students were surprised that some answered immediately and that our professor mentors are some of our most enthusiastic supporters!  They have given generously of their time and expertise. We have also learned how to make promotional brochures, posters, and letters. These are especially important for fundraising and advertising events!

At this year’s end of school meeting for next year’s potential research students, I showed them this TEDTalk by Wendy Hawkins, the Executive Director of the Intel Foundation. I believe this further inspired my students to take on the challenge of research.

Why do you think it’s important for students to participate in scientific research? Do you have any advice for young students interested in pursuing science?
The importance of doing scientific research cannot be overemphasized. Not only does it truly give students a broad comprehensive education in more than just their field of interest of study (statistics, math modeling, technical writing, etc.), but it helps develop great work habits, self-discipline, computer skills (Excel, Word, and PowerPoint), graphic design, and critical thinking.  Science research also makes students stand apart for college admissions and scholarships, and helps them gain confidence, poise, and communication skills beyond what is taught in the classroom. My advice to young students interested in science: don’t be afraid of failure and learn from it!  Science research can be learned- it is not an innate talent bestowed upon those few special genius types! Many shy away because they had difficulty in science courses, but should perceive this as a challenge to be overcome. Research projects help push students to intellectual limits beyond what they perceive as possible, and pursuing science will help ensure a future with a fascinating career, incredible opportunities, and fascinating colleagues.

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