Unwelcome Science

Fighting negative images about scientists and anger over Ivy expansion, a principal gets experimental

The students call it their "Argument Class" because they debate issues of the day and their solutions. "People think philosophy is too hard for sixth-graders," says Thomson, "but when kids talk to their parents, they ask 'Why?' That's the philosophy question." In other words, they're doing what comes naturally to them. For example, they grappled with the construction of China's Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric dam. The children examined the trade-off between the cleaner power the dam generates compared with coal, and the dam's impact on thousands of villagers who were displaced from their homes and way of life. They also examined why it is important to be environmentally conscious.

"They're practicing language arts, addressing social-studies issues, and science—coordinating claims with evidence," says Kuhn. "These are higher-order thinking skills that cut across the curriculum and issues they hear about in the news."

On alternating days, students have been using the city as a living laboratory. They visited the pond in Morningside Park to observe nearby plant life and take water samples. They created a little ecosystem, observed algae growing, and saw the effect that dumping Clorox had on it. They're also participating in an egg-drop contest. The challenge is to protect an egg that falls five stories, using only recycled materials. Some fashioned parachutes and others stuffed cushioning into boxes to cradle the eggs.

Columbia Science School
photo: Cary Conover
Columbia Science School

Courses and mini-workshops are supplemented with local field trips such as geology field trips to the New York City watershed in the Catskill Mountains so that students can learn where their water comes from and why it is largely untreated when it empties into their sinks. There will also be a trip in June to Maldonado-Rivera's farm in Puerto Rico, where students will learn island ecology and visit the rain forests and mangrove swamps. "Such experiences are transformational—psychologically, physically, and intellectually," he says. "They get kids away from the laboratory-science model." He wants them to see that life as a scientist is "exciting and full of passion."

But it doesn't matter to Maldonado- Rivera whether his graduates become world-class scientists. CSS's overall goal is to instill the idea that the scientific method is a way of thinking. "It's fine if they become poets or cinematographers," Maldonado-Rivera says, "as long as science gives them a qualitative perspective on the world." The world needs more "science citizens," he says. If they do become scientists, Maldonado-Rivera says their fluency in Spanish will make them very attractive to Big Pharma and bioengineering, which are moving offshore to Puerto Rico, Latin America, and Spain.

Maldonado-Rivera's vision is very broad. He finds beauty in CSS students from all walks of life learning and debating together. "In a world marked by disgusting and nonsensical divisions, by genocide, ethnic strife, and an us-versus-them mentality, we have a special responsibility to show a different way—that we can derive a special kind of strength from human diversity."

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