High school students become hooked on science via Peabody’s EVOLUTIONS

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Operating a Sci.CART in the Peabody’s Great Hall, EVO students David and Matteo help museum visitors understand the different conditions for life that existed during the Late Cretaceous and Pleistocene ages and which animals had a better chance of survival in each.

There was another rite of passage on campus recently, as 24 high school seniors graduated last week from the EVOLUTIONS Afterschool Program at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Included among them were two students who will return to Yale in the fall as members of the freshman class.

EVOLUTIONS stands for EVOking Learning & Understanding Through Investigations Of the Natural Sciences. It began in 2005 with 11 students as a free program for high school students in New Haven. The program soon expanded to include West Haven. In addition to the departing seniors, there are currently 90 freshmen, sophomores and juniors enrolled in the program.

Any 9th or 10th grader in a New Haven or West Haven public school who is interested in science and wants help preparing for college may apply. Participants are selected based not on their grades but on their desire to participate and enthusiastically dedicate themselves to the program. Preference is given to students from low-income families, underrepresented minorities, and those who will be first in their family to attend college.

As EVO — as the students call it — has grown in enrollment, it has also grown in scope, with new projects and learning experiences introduced regularly. Formal and informal learning opportunities address four key goals:

  • Attaining an understanding of the basics of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
  • Preparing for college
  • Becoming aware of career opportunities
  • Developing transferable skills to foster success in academics and beyond

The curriculum, designed by Peabody staff, combines science career exploration with hands-on, real- world exposure to the sciences. Its comprehensive mix of activities and experiences takes place not only after school but also during evenings, weekends, and summers during a student’s high school career. It even includes the creation and installation of an annual exhibition at the Peabody.

“EVO provides students with opportunities to learn from and contribute to the Peabody Museum through all four years of high school,” said Andrea Motto, director of EVO. “Our staff, several of whom are graduates of EVO, work to provide students with the tools and knowledge to successfully navigate barriers to participation in STEM and the transition into college.”

EVOLUTIONS students Carina and Doussaba learn about squirrel populations and thinning osprey eggs in the EVO student exhibition “How Do Animals Adapt to Humans?” The exhibition will remain on view at the Peabody through May of 2018.

Fostering intellectual and emotional growth

Classes, taught by Yale undergraduates, are geared toward stimulating a passion to learn. A typical lesson will begin with a science concept of the week — such as a presentation on archaeology, an article on climate change, or a video on glowworms. These lessons aim to raise questions that are designed to prompt reflection within an environment that encourages self-discovery and an open sharing of ideas. Icebreakers help students let their guard down and feel at ease.

A key goal is for students to grow emotionally as well as intellectually. Alana Ladson, operations coordinator for EVO, stresses the importance of personal development and how it helps develop the maturity to face college head-on. “Students go through a metamorphosis, learning a lot about people but a lot more about themselves,” she said.

During the student’s second year in the program, tours of the Peabody collections are added to the curriculum. With over 13 million objects in 10 curatorial divisions, the collections are a vast store of scientific knowledge. Students meet with collections managers, get to see the objects up close, and work with some of the material. On a given day an entomologist might explain the 17-year cicada cycle, a herpetologist discuss the reason a frog specimen has three legs, or an invertebrate zoologist describe a crab’s chances of staving off the deadly mantis shrimp. Students use these collections when creating their annual EVO exhibition at the Peabody. This year’s exhibit — “How Do Animals Adapt to Humans?” — opened at the Peabody May 14 and will remain on view through mid-May of 2018, when it will be replaced by next year’s exhibition.

College prep

The college preparation aspect of EVO is particularly of interest to those students who will be first in their family to attend college. Classroom sessions feature a career field of the week or college of the week, and aim to help students understand post-secondary academics and refine their academic goals. Students receive college counseling and SAT practice, attend college essay writing and financial aid workshops, and visit college campuses regionally.

Each year, the program hosts a three-day, out-of-state college trip. Many of the students have never been outside Connecticut and can only imagine what life away from home or in a new town or city is like. This trip gives them an opportunity to talk to the host college’s students and staff and get a taste of campus life, from the academic and social scene to athletics, dorm life, and more.

“College is a big thing,” said Lindsay, a junior at ESUMS (Engineering & Science University Magnet School). “EVO is helping me be prepared, and it’s giving me access to college.” Exploring careers in STEM has been especially rewarding, she noted, particularly her work with collections manager Larry Gall in the Peabody’s Division of Entomology. A video project she did about the collections has inspired her to think about combining science with technology as a computer science engineer, she said.

Raven, a junior at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven, credits EVO for preparing her for college and building excitement for it. Instead of the shy person she was when she entered the program, she said, she now finds herself being outgoing and taking on challenges. She cites her AP Chemistry class as an example. “I never would have taken it without EVO,” said Raven, who is considering a career as a veterinarian.

EVO students Dylan, Adan, Jihad, and Wayde pose with the Morgan State mascot on their college trip to Washington, D.C. in April.

Sci.CORPS

Lindsay and Raven are also members of the Sci.CORPS student employment program that operates within EVOLUTIONS. Sci.CORPS (Science Career Orientation and Readiness Program for Students) is available to students after they complete 75 hours as a museum apprentice, developing basic job and communication skills. As paid science interpreters, they operate hands-on Sci.CARTS in the museum’s galleries to engage visitors in activities and demonstrations. Last year alone Sci.CORPS students provided nearly 5,000 hours of educational experiences to museum visitors.

Jihad, a junior at Wilbur Cross, operates a Sci.CART on birds. He attributes his comfort level and skill answering questions to his behind-the-scenes visits to the Peabody collections. “EVO has built up my self-confidence and helped me communicate better,” he said. “I loved visiting the collections; they made me aware of fields and careers I didn’t know existed.”

Working at a paleontology Sci.CART on a Saturday, Alexcina, a senior at ESUMS, guides a young visitor through an activity that involves placing certain mammals and reptiles in the correct prehistoric period — Late Cretaceous or Pleistocene — based on the climate in which that animal could survive. The broad STEM focus has been a strong motivator for her, she said. “I’m a sponge for learning. I’ve always loved science, so EVO only increased my love for it.”

EVO also aims to inspire initiative. Alexcina, for example, expanded the job of interpreting exhibits with Sci.CARTS to interpreting them with digital media. Her project — called “Look Inside the Museum,” a short film highlighting the minerals in David Friend Hall — received such positive feedback that she is working on a longer version and aims to complete short videos of all the Peabody galleries during the summer before leaving for college. She intends to combine her video skills with STEM to major in producing and directing as a freshman at Relativity School in Los Angeles next year.

Ben Gibson, operations coordinator for Sci.CORPS and leader of the Sci.CORPS students’ professional development program, said that participants’ enthusiasm for science often grows over the course of the program. “Some initially low-level presenters develop into bona fide geniuses,” he responded. “These students didn’t necessarily come in with fire and passion but latched onto concepts and projects here with a whole lot of enthusiasm.”

“EVOLUTIONS students who join our lab jump right into carrying out primary research.”

— Pincelli Hull, assistant professor of geology and geophysics

Gibson develops the curriculum along with Eileen Leary, who comes to the Peabody through AmeriCorps VISTA under PAVE New Haven. Asked how EVO stands out from other programs, Leary pointed to the attitude of the people who lead it. “They recognize that these students are already fantastic; we give them a place to come and show it off.”

Internships

EVO rising juniors and seniors can apply for paid summer internships at Yale science laboratories and in the Peabody collections, thereby providing the students with further opportunities to explore the many dimensions of STEM. Interns work alongside and are mentored by Yale faculty and graduate students in both field and lab work, engaging in 100 hours or more of authentic scientific research.

Six students served their internships as Environmental Leaders through a Bay & Paul Fellowship. They studied air and water quality issues that affect human health and learned about the need to give voice to those most affected. In a blog maintained by EVO students, Dante, a senior at Co-Op, wrote about a passionate talk that “inspired me as an Environmental Leader to do more in my community.” David, a senior at Wilbur Cross, expanded on that theme, writing about the importance of getting the public to encourage the government to listen.

Environmental Leaders prepared lesson plans for a class on environmental science they would teach to fellow EVO students. Dante and David wrote one on climate change. David, who will be a freshman at Yale this fall, said he was empowered by the experience of teaching others and sharing his knowledge, be it addressing his classmates or interpreting a Sci.CART for museum visitors. “I can see myself teaching science,” he said, but having explored so many exciting fields through EVO he said he is in no rush to choose a focus.

Alice, a senior at West Haven High, is also an Environmental Leader. Her lesson, prepared as part of a team, was on environmental health. Alice credits her Bay & Paul Fellowship and EVO in general for her intellectual and emotional growth the last four years. “EVO has been a life-changing experience,” she declared. “I was always shy, but through engagement with visitors and giving presentations to a large audience, I became more comfortable with my knowledge and myself.” Whereas Alice never aimed beyond a community college before coming to EVO, she said, she will enter Yale next year to study molecular and cellular biology.

Yale College senior Alondra Arguello oversees the Environmental Leaders. An EVO graduate herself, she is not surprised by how many students credit EVO for their strong communication skills. “EVO helped me know how to speak to different age groups and understand the importance of listening to those I’m interpreting to or teaching.” Now, as a role model, she hopes to impart these skills in others so they too will serve as leaders and empower others to do the same.

Nicholas, a junior at Co-Op, chose the Peabody collections for his internship. Under the direction of. Patrick Sweeney, senior collections manager for the Division of Botany, he was introduced to collections management, curation, and informatics. Working with an undergraduate mentor, Nicholas worked on digitizing and mounting specimens, among other tasks.

Aaliyah and Gaby, juniors at Metropolitan Business Academy and West Haven High respectively, worked in the geology lab of Pincelli Hull, assistant professor of geology and geophysics, preparing samples of foraminifera, microscopic organisms that are keys to the secrets of ancient oceans, and measuring their shapes to understand the effect of climate change on ocean plankton. 

Mel, Alexcina, and Adam work on a project in the EVO tech studio.

“EVOLUTIONS students who join our lab jump right into carrying out primary research,” explained Hull. “In doing so, they learn the foundational skills of working in STEM fields, which include careful attention to detail, scientific standards of data quality and data reproducibility, and the importance of questioning everything — from scientific ideas to laboratory protocols to how to analyze the data.” She emphasized that although Aaliyah and Gaby worked on past oceans and the fossil records, “the training should provide a stepping-stone for pursuing a career in STEM.”

Now in its 12th year, EVO continues to flourish and grow. A new initiative called Outdoor Corps is based on a partnership with New Haven LEAP. Working with 9- and 10-year-old students, LEAP interns focused on experiential learning in urban and rural outdoor spaces.

Evaluating EVO’s success

The EVO students’ enthusiasm and desire to learn is considered a major factor in the success of the program as is the nurturing environment and dedication of a talented EVO staff and the Peabody community at large. Evaluations of EVO are performed by the SageFox Consulting Group, whose mission is to make educational programs better and ensure the successful use of resources for clients “engaged in changing the landscape of education.”

According to a 2015-2016 SageFox evaluation, “Students developed a clear sense of community with their peers and the people who ran the program, and some were comfortable enough at the museum that they characterized EVOLUTIONS as a ‘second home.’

SageFox also collected the following data on student progress:

  • 92% report an increased understanding of how the Peabody Museum works and how to create a museum exhibition;
  • 87% report an increased understanding of the variety of career opportunities in STEM;
  • 87% report an increased understanding of the connection between high school academics, college academics, and careers;
  • 85% report an increased understanding of different cultures and perspectives;
  • 80% report an increased ability to conduct science, work in teams, and understand different cultures and perspectives;
  • 75% or more report increased communication skills, science literacy, and field research skills.

All results exceed program goals, which themselves increase each year.

Over the last three years, approximately 80% of lowerclassmen (grades 9 to 11) in EVO have reenrolled, and 90% of EVO graduates have gone on to a four-year college. While not all choose to major in the sciences, many who choose other fields find a way to incorporate STEM in their studies — as Alexcina intends to do.

EVOLUTIONS enjoys strong commitment from funding organizations. Support is provided by The Bay and Paul Foundations, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Liberty Bank Foundation, and anonymous private donors.

“EVO has rapidly emerged from its inception just over a decade ago to become one of the signature programs offered by the Peabody,” said the museum’s director, David Skelly. “Its impact is unquestionable, and it is beloved by its current students as well as its many alums.”

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Media Contact

Melanie Brigockas: melanie.brigockas@yale.edu, 203-432-5099