Kathryn Hedges, a 2011 SSP Fellow, is a pre-college teacher at Lew Wallace STEM Academy in Gary, IN. Students from her school recently won a regional robotics competition. Each year, ten top U.S. high school science and math teachers are selected by SSP as Fellows based on their unique plans to reach students in underserved communities and inspire excellence in independent scientific research. Funded by Intel, the program includes a stipend, ongoing training and resources, and attendance at the Fellows Institute in Washington, DC.
What made you decide to apply to be a SSP Fellow?
I have been helping students throughout Lake County conduct research for many years, but it is difficult to help many of the less fortunate kids without funding. The stipend from the SSP Fellowship allowed me to purchase project boards, art materials, rice and arsenic testing kits, solar panels, and other assorted materials for kids to use to do experiments. It also provided materials for robotics and funds for students to attend the robotics contest.
What is your background in science and research?
I have loved science for as long as I can remember. As a teen in New Zealand, I went to the beach and caught an octopus in a large glass. I filled my beach bag with water and took it home on the bus. I also had an albatross that was injured. I splinted its wing and bought fish to feed it for a month before releasing it. When I came to the U.S., I was fascinated with the roaches that lived in the trees in the area of Texas that we moved to. I captured and kept them in a shed because my mother wouldn’t let me bring them inside.
I participated in the science fair while living in New Zealand, and as a freshman in college got more involved with research- I actually worked on the Apollo Program in Houston. I grew the plant tissue cultures and tested moon dust on them to be sure that they didn’t carry viruses that might destroy the earth. I graduated and continued doing research at the University of Illinois, Naylor Dana Institute, Sloan Kettering Institute, Purdue, and Indiana University.
About 15 years ago, I took over joint leadership of the Calumet Regional Fair. We have one of the most ethnically diverse science fairs in the state and generally are the only fair that sends minority students to the state fair.
How has being a Fellow impacted your ability to develop a research program?
Being an SSP Fellow has enabled me to convince school officials to allow me to work with students that I would not normally have access to. I am trying to plan a summer research program and the money will help buy materials to get more kids started on research. In addition, I am trying to find a permanent place to set up a research lab for students in our area.
Can you describe the progress you have made at your school and in your community?
We formed a robotics and science club for middle school students and a robotics club for high school students. This group won first place in the first outside science competition the school had ever participated in. Multiple students entered projects into the Calumet Regional Science Fair, and they won an assortment of awards. Three students were able to attend the state science fair, and were the only African-American competitors. Two students from Lake Central High School that I have advised will be attending the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) this May. In addition, I will be bringing another teacher and two of my current advisees as student observers so they can learn more about competing in science fairs.
What advice would you have for other individuals attempting to increase interest in science in their communities and nurture students through the research process?
It is difficult working with some groups of students, because they can be transient and have little support from home, community, or school but even a small win- a couple of interesting experiments- can change a child’s life. To maintain a strong program, I need to find more mentors, additional commitments from local businesses, and more teachers to support students who would like to compete in science fairs. In our area, there are few schools supporting science fairs and I am working with parents to form science clubs that offer support to local students.
Why do you think it’s important for students to participate in scientific research?
I tell students and others that doing a science fair is a great training ground for almost any career. Students learn technology, networking, and organizational and presentation skills. These are all skills needed for any career. Students are better citizens and are able to make better informed decisions as a result of these skills. In a few cases, the results have been life changing- students stayed in school and went on to college as a result of science fair participation and changed the paradigm of a community. They discovered that they could do what many had told them they couldn’t, and that changed their lives.
Your students recently competed in a regional robotics competition. Can you describe that experience?
I formed a robotics club as an after school activity. My students learned to build and operate a robot and then we entered this competition. Brenda Thomas, a teacher I partnered on robotics with, said that she would be happy if the students learned what the competition was about – and truthfully so would I, but I told the kids that I didn’t come to competitions to just play, I expect to win- and that is what they did. I think the kids were particularly good at reacting quickly to figure out strategies of the game. Next year, I hope to have one robot for every two to three students, instead of the one to ten ratio I had this year.
If you are a scientist, please consider giving of your time to help a child who needs support. Consider giving a poor student the opportunity to work in your lab for a few weeks in the summer. If you work for a company who hires scientists, promote mentorships and donate funds to those who might help a child learn to love science by participating in research.