ASPIRE Inspires Teens Into STEM

SHREVEPORT, La. – Most students who stay after school at Shreveport’s Fair Park High do so for the usual reasons—football and band practice. But a growing number of 7th through 12th graders are spending their after-class time in a program that helps them put down roots in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math.

The program—called ASPIRE, for After School Program for Innovation and Respect for Education—is the brainchild of LSU-Shreveport chemistry professor, Dr. Brian Salvatore. He says, “It’s an opening to get the students to have that spark in their eye about seeing what the big picture is about why knowledge is so important.”

It’s what’s known as “project-based learning”, and on a recent visit the teens were launching rockets—after they did the math that goes with learning to understand the physics of gravity, propulsion and escape velocity.

“I bet not a single kid in there knew before they came in that they could actually figure out and predict—just from some numbers on a table that the manufacturer provided—how high that rocket was going to go, or how fast that rocket was going to go,” says Salvatore, adding,” And it was something that they saw that, wow! This isn’t just an assignment on a piece of paper.”

Cathy Bonds, president of the Fair Park Alumni Association—and the school’s volunteer coordinator—says ASPIRE is helping change the culture at the inner city school, which is rated “failing” by the state.

“We had a science fair at Fair Park last year, in the spring—for the first time in about 40 years,” Bonds says. “We had 4 projects with 5 students participating, and all projects qualified for district competition. We went to a 5-parish district competition and Fair Park walked away with 3rd place in biochemistry. And, another student won the Naval Research Foundation Award.”

Bonds says that award-winning student is now attending LSU-Shreveport, and is coming back to Fair Park every week—as a mentor in the program. LSU-S math and science majors are an integral part of the ASPIRE program, helping design and teach the projects, and getting ”service-learning” credits at the university for their participation.

ASPIRE projects are also being used during regular class hours at another Shreveport high school. At Booker T. Washington, 10th grade biology students are studying embryology using an ASPIRE lesson plan.

“We’re learning about how DNA is made, and how it produces proteins, and learning what’s the difference between DNA and RNA”, says sophomore DeAndre Washington. “And we’re learning about how the embryo forms and what it needs to hatch.

That’s right—he said “hatch”. DeAndre and his classmates are doing a 28-day project on duck eggs.

“That teacher has their attention for that whole 28 days, because they’re candling the eggs, they’re seeing the embryos move, they’re explaining the structures inside of the egg,” Salvatore explains. “And yet they’re learning without even realizing how much they’re learning.”

Booker T. Washington High biology teacher Jennifer Jacobson says the ASPIRE projects are making a noticeable difference for some students.

“I will see students that have been checked-out mentally for the entire semester, and now bring something in like our duck eggs, and all of a sudden they’re starting to be inquisitive and ask about the eggs, and want to know more,” Jacobson says. “Coming in, the first thing they ask is, how are the eggs doing? When are they going to hatch? What day are we on? Is the temperature right? Do we have enough humidity?”

Brittany Moore says she’s finally “getting” science.

“When I was in the 9th grade, I didn’t really like science,” Moore says. “I’m a hands-on learner, and it’s better for me to understand what’s going on in class if I’m able to touch things and experience things. Now I’m actually interested in doing science when I get in college.”

The ASPIRE program is being done at no cost to LSU-Shreveport or the Caddo Parish school system, as it’s paid for by a grant from the Community Foundation and the American Chemical Society. Plus, it’s inspired other cooperative programs at Fair Park High, including a robotics course with the Cyber Innovation Center, and a pharmacy tech program with Bossier Parish Community College.

Dr. Salvatore says he’s just happy helping these particular students get turned on to science.

“They’re classified ‘at-risk’ in our inner city schools, but that’s something that we can do something about,” he explains. “It’s something that can be addressed in the middle school and in the high school years—before the students really have gone down a path where they’re not going to pursue education, or where they drop out of school.”

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