Unwelcome Science


It was late October, and a sixth-grader was struggling to make a decision. Should he dress up as Copernicus or Galileo for his school’s “Scienceween” celebration? He was one of 94 students in the founding class of New York’s newest science magnet school, the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering (CSS). For these budding geeks, there would be no witches or zombies: Principal José Maldonado-Rivera had instructed them to choose a scientist, artist, writer, or any other person who “contributed to the betterment of the human condition, advancement of knowledge, or creation of beauty.”

Members of the class of 2014 call themselves DaVincians, Newtonians, or Darwinians. They start their day in “houses” named for these great scientists whose discoveries shifted knowledge about nature and the uni-verse. It’s not your typical public school. But it’s also controversial.

The new school’s temporary home on the fifth floor of P.S. 125 on West 123rd Street off Morningside Drive was hard-won. It is a partnership with Columbia University, which is expanding northward, angering Latino and African-American neighbors who have grown wary of Ivy encroaching on turf they consider theirs. So when the school’s opening was announced last fall, local parents objected to housing CSS in nearby public schools and cited overcrowding.

According to Maldonado-Rivera, who holds doctorates in marine biology and education, many Latinos also resist science, math, and engineering. Maldonado-Rivera thinks that Latinos don’t encourage their children to become scientists because they don’t have a positive image of them. To them and their children, scientists are nerdy and intellectual—definitely not cool or sexy. Many locals believe the cliché that scientists are disturbed, unhappy people, he says.

In 2007, just under 12 percent of Hispanics age 25 to 29, earned bachelors degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (In contrast, 30 percent of the general population the same age has bachelors.) Eight percent of all bachelors degrees awarded in science, math, and engineering in 2005 went to Hispanics, improving very slightly over five years, according to the National Science Foundation. Of those degrees, 2 percent (815) were awarded in mathematics, 3 percent (938) in physics, chemistry, and astronomy, and 13 percent (4, 614) in engineering. While Hispanics have similar percentages in these degrees compared to other racial/ethnic groups, except for Asians Americans who exceed everyone, the numbers are very small. “We have to change that and help parents and their kids break out,” says Maldonado-Rivera. “But there is no way to get them interested in science unless you start early.”

But does the city really need another science, math, and engineering school? Some intermediate schools in nearby districts emphasize those subjects but are open-enrollment, not magnet schools. Others screen applicants, but do not necessarily emphasize science, math, and engineering. The city’s six science, math, and engineering high schools accept applicants from every borough who score high on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, which is curved according to test results that year. These schools draw 11,600 of the city’s 320,000 high school students, but Hispanics and African-Americans are underrepresented. The Bronx High School of Science, for example, is 7 percent Hispanic, 4 percent African-American, 25 percent white, and 58 percent Asian. Hispanics and African-Americans are better represented at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College, which opened on 137th Street and Convent Avenue in 2002. Thirty percent are Hispanic, almost 19 percent African-American, 27 percent Asian, and 24 percent white. Many of these students are groomed for the Ivy League and technology institutes.

To inform and attract skeptical parents, last winter Maldonado-Rivera visited 21 Upper Manhattan schools, in addition to the Harlem YMCA, and held open houses. He addressed parents and their children in both Spanish and English, gaining their trust and enthusiasm. He said CSS would be unique—the only magnet school serving only its surrounding community and not citywide, from 96th Street to Inwood. Moreover, its curriculum would offer an innovative, skills-oriented, and humanistic approach to science. That is, kids would learn not just facts, but how to ask questions, design investigations to address those questions, evaluate information, and draw conclusions. They would also learn to debate their claims and address opposing points of view.

As a result of this grassroots effort, local elementary schools whose students had never applied to a magnet school held lotteries so that their students could apply. But because many still hand-record grades, they could not send a computer-generated spreadsheet with their applicants’ scores. To overcome such school-system inequities, Maldonado-Rivera helped parents (many of whom work three jobs and were hard to reach) complete their children’s applications.

Last February, 1,000 applications for 100 places flooded Maldonado-Rivera’s office. After each applicant took a test (an open-ended essay), Maldonado-Rivera interviewed the most promising candidates, keeping an eye out for gender equity. The resulting demographic: 60 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 20 percent white and Asian. One-third are Hispanic girls.

Josepha Taveras has a son, Antonio, who is a math whiz (he got a 4, the highest score possible, on a standardized state test). She wanted him to attend CSS because “students learn by practicing hands-on science instead of memorizing a book.” Luis and Janet Morales liked that Columbia University is “giving an opportunity to younger students, not just college-age.”

CSS students start every other day with a lesson on philosophy and methods of science, alternating with a science lab. Designed by Deanna Kuhn, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia’s Teacher’s College, and Paul Thomson, who teaches at CSS, the philosophy course is the cornerstone of the school’s curriculum.

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.

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.”