One studentís story

Nicole Garbarini, Ph.D.
Published: January, 2009

Every Tuesday afternoon, Q-vaughnia Hornbeck leaves her public high school early, bound for a laboratory on the Vanderbilt University campus where she is investigating a new way to identify sewage contamination in lakes, rivers and other recreational waters.

Q-vaughnia Hornbeck (right) goes over her research with Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach. Jennifer Ufnar, Ph.D., (not pictured) mentored Hornbeck’s senior project.
Photo by Anne Rayner
“Everyone wants to know why I leave early,” says Hornbeck, a senior at Whites Creek Comprehensive High School in Nashville. “They say, ‘You’re so smart!’”

Undoubtedly, but Hornbeck says the best part of her experience in the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt is the friendships she’s made with her teachers and fellow students.

It’s also changed her career choice – from dentistry to neuroscience.

“It’s changed everything,” she says confidently. “I like the fact that you have a question and then you can develop ways to answer the question. I also like that you don’t have someone telling you what to do next. You can decide that on your own.”

Hornbeck is one of 10 seniors and 49 underclassmen from Nashville public schools currently enrolled in the innovative Vanderbilt program. It is the latest effort by Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., and her colleagues to enhance K-12 science education.

In 1994, Shepherd got her first her first science education grant to fund summer workshops for teachers. That led to a variety of programs, including the Girls and Science summer camp, the involvement of graduate students in K-12 classrooms and, in 2002, establishment of the Center for Science Outreach, which Shepherd directs.

Then, in 2007, Vanderbilt Medical Center, in partnership with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, launched the School for Science and Math.

Directed by Glenn McCombs, Ph.D., the school has four full-time, Ph.D.-level instructors. Most of the students spend one day a week at Vanderbilt receiving accelerated classroom instruction and laboratory experience, while still keeping up with their studies in their public schools. The seniors also conduct summer research projects.

In the past two years, three of the seniors have achieved semifinalist recognition in the prestigious Siemens (formerly Westinghouse) national science competition.

Too often in regular science classes, “students … find themselves doing a cookbook kind of lab, and there’s not the open-ended question and hypothesis-driven kind of project,” says Shepherd, a professor of Pathology and Medicine and associate professor of Biochemistry.

“We’re trying to do that here … To me, that’s the way to build critical thinkers and problem solvers, and that’s what I’d love to see in schools” throughout the country.

Shepherd recognizes that high schools and universities have very different cultures. But “with a good relationship between a university or institute of higher education and the K-12 system,” she insists, “there can be some wonderful partnerships built up that can be mutually beneficial.”

The goal is nothing short of revolutionary.

“What’s the Sputnik of your generation?” Shepherd challenges the students. Cures for cancers? A vaccine that prevents AIDS? A solution to the energy crisis?

“You want to give something to these students that they can grab a hold of, so they can say, ‘Yeah, I want to be that kind of scientist,’” she says.

“The challenge is what will excite students and keep the spark going.”

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