This project pairs graduate student fellows in ecological and environmental disciplines with middle school science teachers to improve the communication skills of the former and the inquiry-based teaching skills of the latter. Fellows and teachers attend summer workshops on student learning, curriculum development, and effective communication. They develop and implement inquiry-based lesson plans built upon the fellows' research areas in order to foster middle school student interest in science. Science Made Sensible addresses three problems. First, graduate programs fail to prepare future scientists to communicate clearly. In this program, middle school serves as a venue for such training. Second, teachers' knowledge of science constrains what and how they teach. Partnering with graduate fellows, teachers learn to incorporate research-based, interdisciplinary and quantitative activities in the classroom. Third, student achievement and interest in science begins a steady decline during middle school. Hands-on research experiences shaped by graduate-fellow-and-teacher teams keep middle school students interested in science. Structural change in the professional training of scientists is needed to expand their array of career choices. This program equips graduate fellows for careers that require an ability to communicate complex subject matter effectively to diverse audiences.

Project Report

The Science Made Sensible (SMS) program at the University of Miami (UM) was developed to address three major problems in science education today: 1) graduate programs fail to prepare future scientists to communicate clearly, 2) K-12 teachers’ knowledge of science constrains what and how they teach, and 3) student achievement and interest in science begins a steady decline during middle school. The SMS program paired graduate student fellows in the sciences with middle school science teachers to improve the communication skills of the fellows and the inquiry-based teaching skills of the teachers as well as foster student interest in science Forty-six graduate fellows, 54 middle school science teachers and students from 12 middle schools across Miami-Dade County have been impacted by SMS. Each summer prior to the school year, teachers and fellows attended a summer institute with sessions designed to equip participants with various pedagogical teaching strategies including problem-based learning techniques as well as written and oral communication skills. Throughout the academic year, teacher and fellow teams developed and incorporated hands-on activities into the lesson plans. Whenever possible, activities were based on the graduate students’ research. Each year the program culminated in a capstone event, where fellows and teachers presented their most engaging lesson plans, and students read out loud their award-winning essays describing with the genuineness of middle school students the enormously positive impact the SMS program had on the their understanding of and interest in science. Fellows evaluated participation in SMS very favorably. After completing the program, fellows were confident about explaining their research to a lay audience and felt prepared to talk about their field of study to non-scientists. Fellows’ research advisors also saw a positive improvement in the communication skills of their graduate students. Thirty of the 46 fellows have graduated from UM with graduate degrees in the sciences, twenty fellows with a PhD and 10 with a Master’s degree. Of the 20 fellows who graduated UM with a PhD, six have postdoctoral positions, six are research scientists, and four have assistant professorships. Of the 10 fellows who left UM with a Master’s degree, one is pursuing a PhD, one completed a PhD, and four are working as research scientists. The professional training provided by the SMS program has equipped the fellows with the ability to communicate their subject matter effectively to diverse audiences. Thus, the SMS program has contributed to the fellows’ ability to secure competitive positions after graduating from UM. SMS participation also had positive impact on the way the teachers teach. After participating in SMS, nearly twice as many teachers felt ready to implement lab activities to reinforce lessons on almost anything in the curriculum compared to teachers who did not participate in SMS. Additionally, SMS teachers felt more confident lecturing about science than non-SMS teachers. Each year we had teachers and schools request that we continue working with them the next year, which is a testament to the positive impact we have had. To get middle school students excited about science, graduate fellows spent 10 hours a week in the classrooms. Bringing hands-on research experiences to the students worked. Over 2000 students from Miami’s poorest performing schools in the inner city filled out evaluations. The majority of students understood science better with a scientist in the classroom and wanted a scientist to work in their future science classes. While not all middle schools students impacted by SMS will pursue careers in science, increased engagement in and understanding of science will make the students more prepared to confront societal issues such as our collective responsibility to our natural ecosystems, the balance between environmental and economic concerns, the matter of family size, and the balance of global thinking and local concern. We also took the SMS model to South Africa, where a total of 10 UM graduate students and eight Miami-Dade public school teachers worked with local teachers and undergraduate students from the University of Pretoria in primary schools in the Pretoria area from 2009 - 2012. The majority of fellows and teachers agreed that this was a positive experience that benefited them professionally. As a result of the positive outcomes of the SMS program, we have institutionalized a multigenerational model of the program at UM. Undergraduate students work with teachers in middle schools and high schools to implement hands-on activities. Graduate students mentor the undergraduates and assist with ideas for classroom activities. The South African component is also institutionalized, with undergraduates going to South Africa during the summer to continue our collaboration with the local schools.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Graduate Education (DGE)
Application #
Program Officer
Sonia Ortega
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Miami
Coral Gables
United States
Zip Code