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Asking the right questions
Author: Heather Quinn-Bork
Posted: September 4, 2012


Educating learners in the information age

My very excited mother just served us nine pizzas.

Remember this? In the not too distant past, silly little bits of nonsense like this allowed students to correctly produce the names of planets and other required facts from rote memorization. In the Internet age, however, it’s not so much having all the correct answers that matters. What counts the most is knowing how to make sense of all the information out there and being able to ask the right questions in the first place.

“In recent years, I think there has been a growing awareness that a lot of college and career readiness isn’t about just content that you have been exposed to,” says PSU Professor Bill Becker. “It’s about being a capable and independent learner, being able to access resources, and knowing how and when to use technology as a learning tool.”

Becker and his PSU graduate students are partnering with K-12 schools to help teachers create this kind of learner through integrated STEM—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—education. Since 1993, Becker has directed the Portland State Center for Science Education. Increased need in the community for STEM education has led to the formation of an even more targeted organization, the Portland Metro STEM Partnership, which is supported by Intel, Vernier Software & Technology, JP Morgan Chase Bank, and other donors. The partnership is housed in the same building as the successful Health and Science School, a STEM magnet school for Beaverton middle and high schoolers.

“An active learning mentality is one in which you’re not intimidated by a problem. In the case of science, you have an obvious set of tools to tackle it,” says Becker, who has added executive director of the Portland Metro STEM Partnership to his list of titles. This makes STEM education a good model for teaching students to be independent thinkers who know how to gather their own resources.

THESE ARE the kind of students the Health and Science School (HS2), which opened its doors in 2007, is graduating. HS2 offers rigorous instruction in state-required coursework alongside a medicine and/or science track—all in a small-school setting. Group projects are the norm in classes on engineering, human body systems, digital electronics, and medical interventions. Uniquely, the school recruits Beaverton students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in science, such as students from non-English speaking families or from families that have not experienced past educational success.

A key part of the partnership between HS2 and PSU has been helping these students build identities as college students. HS2 students may take concurrent courses at PSU for university credit. PSU has hosted campus tours for ninth-graders, a first-ever experience for some of the students. The school’s first graduation ceremony was held on the Portland State campus last year.

“Some of it is really just the affective part of making sure students can assume the identity of a successful college student, whether it’s a STEM student or whatever it is that they’re going to go into,” says HS2 principal Steve Day MS ’01.

So far, Day says, HS2 has succeeded in its goals. Approximately 80 percent of graduates have gone into STEM related fields, and the graduation rate is higher than the state average, as is the percentage of graduates who go to college.

FOR 17-YEAR-OLD Veida Lekakh, there was never any doubt about the future. Since she was a little girl, she knew she was going to go to college and pursue a career in the medical field. Lekakh lives in Beaverton with her mother, a disabled immigrant who used to work as a factory manager in Kiev, Ukraine, but wanted to be a doctor.

“In my family it was never a question of whether I’m going to go to college or not,” Lekakh says. “It was always, ‘you’re going to go, you’re going to study, because I didn’t have the chance when I was your age.’”

After Lekakh graduates next spring, she hopes to attend an Ivy League university to earn a degree in biomedical engineering before going on to become a doctor. She’s worked hard at HS2, taking on extra coursework and internships to prepare for college. She even won an award in the 2011 Beaverton-Hillsboro Science Expo—the U.S. Regional Stockholm Junior Water Prize for a project she designed to purify water.

Lekakh could be a poster child for professor Bill Becker’s “independent learner.” A required engineering course her sophomore year was her first introduction to a field in which she had no prior interest or knowledge. Lekakh liked the course so much that she joined a robotics team, where she was able to work in the shop and compete against other schools. In her junior year, she decided to complete the engineering as well as the medical track.

“It was really exciting because I understood it,” says Lekakh, recalling her first experience in an engineering class. “I like it because it gives you a new perspective for things you would have never thought of learning before.” ?

Heather Quinn-Bork is a PSU creative writing student and a graduate assistant in the Office of University Communications.

Top photo: A whole new world opened up to Veida Lekakh when she took a required engineering class at the Health and Science School in Beaverton. She is seen here building a robot. Photos by Kelly James.

Bottom Photo: Alejandro Cortez-Galan (left) and Mark Brown build a robot in an engineering class at the Health and Science School in Beaverton.