Vassar Today

The Greenhouse Effect: Teaching Science in Poughkeepsie

By Lindsay Dawson ’05

Every Thursday morning, Kate DiPasquale ’04 would walk the five blocks from Vassar’s campus to Poughkeepsie Middle School and be transformed from a student into a teacher. “You find out a lot about your personality when working with kids,” she said with a smile. “I became this extreme science nerd to interest the kids in science.” As an intern for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Science Education Program last year, DiPasquale shared her passion for biology with eager seventh-graders. She explained, “The earlier you go, the less exposure the kids have had to science, and the more you can help shape their perception of it.”

The HHMI-Vassar program is designed to spark science students’ interest in education and help local schools in the process. Each Vassar intern is paired with a Poughkeepsie teacher and given access to $2,500 for supplies and equipment intended for use in their projects as well as to improve schools’ facilities. Norene Coller, the Vassar program’s coordinator and a former science teacher, runs a weekly seminar for the interns. “There is a great need for this program in the City of Poughkeepsie schools,” she said. “We have the long-term hope of exposing many students, not just education majors, to teaching. Vassar students work well with the kids; they have good intuition with people.”

For DiPasquale, hands-on learning was the point. Her favorite memories from childhood classes in Richmond, Virginia, were the intense projects that made science seem violently, seductively real. For her Poughkeepsie seventh-graders, DiPasquale created a miniature greenhouse. “Plants defend themselves; they can get aggressive. Some plants spread their roots out of the bottom of their Styrofoam containers and along the bottom. We called it the ‘vampire phenomenon,’ because they were sucking the moisture out of other plants,” she said.

Even though DiPasquale’s goals don’t include a career in education, she wants to work with Teach for America after graduation. Eventually, she will pursue her passion: scientific research. She spoke of the internship’s momentous effect on her life and her studies: “All I had to worry about was the science, and rediscovering my own enthusiasm for it.” To the Poughkeepsie Middle School seventh-graders, she was not only a teacher, but also a constant reminder of their potential. The students, always curious about her, asked frequently about life at Vassar. “They would ask what I studied and why I had time to visit them in the middle of the day. They wondered if I lived at school. A lot of them are not necessarily going to college. Too much emphasis on test scores can stop kids from being engaged. Fun projects are cut out because they don’t fit in the curriculum. I would be surprised if anyone remembered the terms for genetics that we learned, but everyone will know that when you smash the stem of one of the plants, the pigment is purple. That’s what I consider real science. It’s hard to be interested in science if all your experience has been memorizing terms.”

Using her grant money, DiPasquale bought kits to illustrate the process of cross-pollination. Her students used bees, glued to sticks, to pollinate mustard plants. Last year, HHMI-Vassar interns bought 20 microscopes for the Middle School, along with lab exercises and additional supplies that will last for years. While HHMI will continue to fund the current program until 2004, DiPasquale hopes that Vassar will provide financing after the grant expires. She added, “My true interest is what I was trying to incite in these kids — the noticing and questioning that eventually leads to a systematic study of science.”