Q & A with SSP Fellow Sydney Bergman
Sydney Bergman, a 2010 Society for Science & the Public (SSP) Fellow, is a biology teacher at School Without Walls, her own alma mater, in Washington, D.C. Sydney has two students attending the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) this May in Pittsburgh and has successfully created multiple partnerships with area organizations.
What made you decide to apply to be a SSP Fellow?
I had been supporting the science fair program at School Without Walls (SWW) for a few years, but struggled with funding for student projects. I appreciated the flexibility of the grant, particularly in terms of funding all aspects of student projects, not just supplies and equipment. In my time at SWW, we've gone from having one or two students compete in the citywide science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) fair to having 11 compete.
What is your background in science and research?
I got into science by working in gardens. I worked at the garden for my summer camp as a kid, and worked in a community garden before high school, teaching kids about gardening and science. I majored in biology and writing, intending to become a science writer, but was drawn into teaching instead. I've been teaching at School Without Walls, where also I went to high school, for five years.
Can you describe what your experience as an SSP Fellow has been like?
My experience as a Fellow has been fantastic. I had students work on extracurricular projects their first year, in conjunction with the school's senior thesis project class. This year, I taught a section of Senior Project in Science, which is an independent investigations class. I had 11 students, all of whom completed projects and competed in the citywide STEM fair. The stipend from the Fellowship, provided by SSP and Intel, as well as funding from other sources, has been crucial in making such a class possible.
Can you describe the progress you have made at your school and in your community?
This year, I had students compete at the citywide science fair. Six won their categories; the remaining five were competing in categories with SWW students. Three students won first, second, and third overall and the top two are going to be attending Intel ISEF this year as well. All students won special awards. Their success in the program has definitely attracted attention, as has students' pride in their own projects. I'm actively recruiting students for next year's program.
I’ve also developed major partnerships with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and with George Washington University and Chef Jose Andres. Jose and GWU approached the school about developing a curriculum centered around food. I developed and piloted lessons related to science and food, particularly looking at the evolution of lactose tolerance, protein structure, and biotechnology techniques in the context of insulin manufacturing.
Chef Jose visited class one day, and did a wonderful demo about the science of spherification and other cooking techniques. It was amazing! It was really special for students to get to see that cooking is applied science, and Jose is an extremely energetic and charismatic educator.
How has the support you offered impacted students and the broader community?
Students in the research class are going to college knowing that they can be successful doing long-term science research projects. Students are definitely more confident in their abilities in terms of doing lab procedures, as well as in their ability to work on projects that need a lot of attention and revision. Many of them plan to major in science or math, which is great! In terms of the larger community, the school is definitely supportive of the science program, and more and more students are expressing interest in taking upper level sciences.
What advice would you have for other individuals attempting to increase interest in science in their communities and nurture students through the research process?
Community partnerships are absolutely key. I don't try to mentor all eleven students; I partnered with NIH and NOAA to provide mentors. I, of course, support students and supervise them, but it helps kids a lot more if they connect with actual working scientists. I'm lucky that my school is in Washington, D.C., near a lot of government agencies that can provide mentors; I would encourage teachers to reach out to whoever is in their communities. Students need to see that the scientific community is incredibly diverse in terms of background, experience, and interest. They also need to learn how to work with an adult, in terms of learning business communication, punctuality, etc.
Do you have any advice for young students interested in pursuing science?
Science is a verb - students need to do science in order to learn it. I wanted students to experience what it's like to take a project from an initial idea to a completed set of research, and to present that research. That being said, it doesn't happen in a vacuum. Almost all of the students in my research class took or are taking an AP science, often doubling up.
That said, you don't need to be a straight-A student to do science well, nor do you have to be a 'genius' or 'brilliant.' People have this misconception that scientists are born knowing everything and that science is inaccessible to people who aren't somehow gifted. That's pretty much nonsense. So, I would tell students who are interested in doing science to do well in their science classes, but also to have a variety of experiences that they can bring to their projects. They should also know that 'soft skills' like perseverance, reliability, and communication skills, etc., are just as important as knowing the content in completing a project.
What are your future plans?
Right now, I'm gearing up to attend Intel ISEF for the first time, which I'm very excited about. In addition, I am working with George Washington University to arrange a forum for students with Dr. Ferid Murad, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine. I'm also actively recruiting students for next year's research class!
Don't be afraid to ask for help supporting your program. I get support from NIH and NOAA, as I said, as well as part of the school's senior project curriculum. Reaching out to people in the scientific community has been a fantastic experience. You don't know if people are willing to help until you ask!