The only learning obstacle Lavone Rodolph encountered in high school was trying to combine what he learned in the classroom with real life, he said. Then, education was sometimes intangible beyond earning a grade.
"If I was learning a concept in class, physics or chemistry, sometimes I didn't know how I would apply it in my personal life or I didn't know the benefit of learning it other than passing a test," Rodolph said.
Rodolph - now a Ph.D. student in computer science and engineering - is trying to enhance the learning experience for students at his alma mater, Hutchinson Central Technical High School in Downtown Buffalo, so they do not have to face the same problem he did.
Rodolph works with the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Partnership (ISEP), a five-year program led by UB. Its primary focus is to improve experiential learning in science, technology, engineering and math fields (STEM) for students in Buffalo public schools.
Research has shown a significant proportion ? 33 percent ? of children start to lose interest in science as young as age 8. By middle school, the percentage increases to almost half of those children, according to the National Center for STEM Elementary Education.
ISEP aims to re-ignite a passion for science and other STEM subjects through offering middle and high school students a more hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to learning. This means planning field trips that bolster understanding of learning materials and designing laboratory experiments that illustrate abstract concepts. These activities make learning STEM subjects fun, an objective that Rodolph believes to be a top priority for ISEP.
"The main goal is, No. 1, to make any STEM field fun at the middle school level," Rodolph said. "That way, from the middle school level, they would want to pursue it at the high school level. And again, the goal at the high school level is to make it fun as well as challenging, so from the high school level, they can pursue a STEM field at the collegiate level."
As a graduate assistant, Rodolph has helped with coordinating teachers in numerous projects. These include teaching Android programming, instructing students on creating carbon-dioxide-powered racecars and planning a trip to the Buffalo Museum of Science to see how DNA can be used in forensic investigations.
Since its inception in 2005, ISEP has expanded from two pilot schools to 12 high-needs middle and high schools. In 2011, it received $9.8 million funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Working with three key partners ? Buffalo Public Schools, Buffalo State College and the Buffalo Museum of Science ? and other supporting partners like Roswell Park Cancer Institute, ISEP aims to achieve its goal of improving students' learning experience by pooling resources.
Teachers' education is a big part of ISEP's plan. To better prepare teachers in making STEM education more relevant for students, ISEP and its partners enable teachers to become students themselves. During the summers, teachers develop their professional skills by working with UB graduate students and acquire skills in research and inquiry teaching. During the school year, both graduates and undergraduates help teachers design and implement more hands-on learning in the classroom.
"[ISEP's] objective is to give the teachers a greater level of professionalization, increasing the education level of the teachers themselves, so they can bring their education back into schools and create lasting benefits for students," said Phillip Tucciarone, a junior chemical engineering major.
He has been involved in ISEP for three semesters and mainly designs and conducts "hands-on laboratory experiments" with coordinating teachers.
ISEP has been making progress since its creation, according to UB News Center. For instance, students in ISEP classrooms at Native American Magnet School, one of the two pilot schools, have been approximately "30 percent more likely than district peers to attain proficiency on the eighth grade state science exam," according to UB News Center.
Prior to making such improvement, Native American Magnet School was on the Schools Under Registration Review (SURR) list. SURR schools are low-performing schools that do not meet state standards, according to New York State Education Department's website.
The Native American Magnet School may be closed, said Joseph Gardella, director of ISEP and a John and Frances Larkin professor of chemistry at UB, in an email.
Native American Magnet School was removed from the list in 2009, four years after it got involved in ISEP.
Seeing the school's academic improvement among eighth graders has been one of the many memorable experiences for Gardella.
UB students like Darcy Regan - a senior chemical engineering major who has been involved in ISEP since her freshman year - share in this sense of gratification.
"My favorite thing about being involved in ISEP is when the light bulb goes on in a student's head after I answer one of their questions," Regan said in an email. "It's so rewarding knowing that I successfully helped someone, as slight as it may be."
However, Buffalo Public Schools and their students still face many challenges. Gardella cites "poverty, lack of family support, transient students and families, lack of resources [and] attendance" among many others. He also said these are nationwide issues.
To Gardella, there are no simple or fast solutions to these issues ? efforts to improve the education system take effect slowly. A community "split about the value of public education and expects immediate results to problems" will lead to an overwhelming number of "reform efforts" that may or may not work.
In the end, it is about making learning more relevant and applicable to students' lives and not, just as Rodolph said, to "pass a test."