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Urban Advantage: 10 Years of Connecting Students to Science

by AMNH on

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As the Urban Advantage Middle School Science Initiative celebrates a 10-year milestone this year, stories abound about how the program has helped New York City public middle-school students delve more deeply into science.

2011 Urban Advantage Expo image
These students participated in 2011's Urban Advantage Science Expo, held every year at the Museum.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

There was the Bronx boy who was galvanized to get up at dawn to track the salinity of the Hudson River. The autistic Manhattan 8th-grader who went on to receive one of the highest scores on his New York State Intermediate-Level Science Test. The shy Brooklyn girl who surprised everyone with her poise while presenting her project at the annual Urban Advantage Science Expo, held at the Museum at the end of every school year since the program was launched.

Urban Advantage
At the Urban Advantage Science Expo held annually at the Museum, middle-school students present their studies and experiments. 
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Through Urban Advantage, these students—and thousands of others, as well as their families and teachers—have tapped into extraordinary resources at the Museum and at the city’s zoos, gardens, and science centers.

“Science is more than reading a book,” says Kevyn Jackman, a science teacher at the Academy for Personal Leadership and Experience in the Bronx and an Urban Advantage teacher for seven years who names the Museum as his go-to destination for several science topics. “If we’re studying astronomy, we go to the Hayden Planetarium. Evolution? The (Spitzer) Hall of Human Origins. Fossils, the fourth-floor dinosaur halls.

With annual funding from the Council of the City of New York and the New York City Department of Education, Urban Advantage is a partnership between the New York City Department of Education and the American Museum of Natural History, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York Hall of Science, Queens Botanical Garden, Staten Island Zoo, The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx Zoo, and New York Aquarium that supports science education in middle schools by providing materials for scientific investigations in the classroom, field trips to science-rich institutions, teacher access to such partner resources as collections and scientists, and professional development for educators across the five boroughs aimed at bringing the best of science teaching to the classroom.

In addition to offering teachers up to 40 hours of workshops on a range of topics, the Urban Advantage program has created a strong network of middle-school science teachers that educators value for its collegiality, collaboration, and the opportunity to share curricular resources.

“As a former teacher and principal, I know how critical professional development is to empower, cultivate, and retain great teachers,” says New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

“That’s why it’s great to see Urban Advantage, a truly wonderful program, using the cultural institutions of our City to help teachers innovate new strategies to inspire their students. This program provides tremendous service to school communities, and as science education becomes even more critical for our students over the next decade, I look forward to its continued success.”

Teachers also stress that bringing their classes on visits to partner institutions, such as the Museum, helps energize students and expose them to new disciplines. Julie Wood, a science teacher at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Brooklyn, recalls visits to the Museum in which her students were excited to meet with educator Jay Holmes to learn about Earth science.

On a different visit, her 8th graders learned about and performed a molecular biology technique used to isolate DNA—gel electrophoresis—at the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, a methodology Wood says students ordinarily find out about only in high school.

In addition to visiting with teachers, Urban Advantage students also receive vouchers so that they can bring their families to New York’s museums and science centers outside of school hours for a fun day that also makes parents active participants in their child’s science education.

Urban Advantage Overhead view
The Urban Advantage Science Expo draws hundreds of participants each year. 
© AMNH/R. Mickens

“We find a way to involve every member of the family,” says Johanna Cuevas, parent coordinator at the Urban Assembly Academy for Civic Engagement in the Bronx, who arranges family field trips to the Urban Advantage institutions. “The parents get to see their kids working so hard, to see the passionthey have for what they are working on. It’s amazing how proud and supportive they are of their kids.”

Their pride isn’t misplaced. Independent studies conducted by New York University’s Institute for Education and Social Policy showed that, on average, students attending Urban Advantage participating schools outperform peers on the eighth-grade exam—yet another measure of the program’s success.

The Urban Advantage Science Expo will be held at the Museum on Saturday, June 7.

A version of this story appears in the Spring 2014 Rotunda, the Member magazine.