Simon Says, “Mitochondria!”: An interview with Radha Basu on democratizing science education
Jhumki working with high school students in a physics course in 2004.
This post is part of a week-long STEM Matters series. Thought-leaders, social innovators, and experts from around the country are sharing how and why science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are critical to our abilities to solve complex problems across a wide range of fields, from climate change, medicine, economic development, space exploration, to the movies!
Radha Basu is an extremely successful engineer and entrepreneur with plenty of personal experience that demonstrates the importance of STEM education. But it was the tragic loss of her daughter, New York University professor Dr. Jhumki Basu, that led Basu to become personally involved with bringing high-quality science education to underserved students through the Jhumki Basu Foundation.
The foundation is a partner and prize sponsor of the Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math competition, and is introducing a new framework of democratic science teaching to New York City.
We caught up with Basu to talk about the foundation’s work, and her vision for science education in the United States.
Changemakers: Who was Jhumki Basu?
Radha Basu: Jhumki, our daughter, was passionate about making all students science-literate, particularly inner-city, underserved, minority students. She believed that underserved youth must have access to a high-quality science education; that science should be fun and engaging; and that science offers students an opportunity to transform their lives, the lives of their communities, and their world.
And that’s the revolution that she worked to bring to New York City inner-city kids by starting the School for Democracy and Leadership in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. Jhumki unfortunately was diagnosed with cancer, and she passed away at the end of 2008.
Changemakers: What is the vision of the foundation, and how is it related to Jhumki’s passion for science education?
Basu: The vision of the foundation is really Jhumki’s vision. It says right in our tagline, “For a world where all kids have access to high-quality science education that’s deeply engaging and transforms their lives.” And that is the mission of the foundation.
At the time of Jhumki’s passing, we were in a lot of grief, but there was an outpouring of support for her mission from nearly 100 volunteers, professors, teachers, and colleagues. We believe that if we can make a real change in New York City, we can bring change everywhere else.
Changemakers: What does it mean to democratize science education?
Basu: Let me start with the question: What is democratic science teaching, and why do we need it? What happens with students in underserved, urban middle schools is that they’re often unable to understand or master the science curriculum, for a number of reasons.
First, in large urban school systems, about 20% of science teachers come from a science background. They’re all very dedicated, but they haven’t received quality training in science.
Second, there’s an acute shortage of experiential learning activities. And, third, the science curriculum is really built around the experiences of more affluent and middle-class schools.
A very critical part of democratic science teaching is to facilitate student engagement, student voice, and to have cultural context in the learning materials. Democratic science education is customized to the students and their environments, and requires resources to help deliver the education. It’s now proven that if you take a democratic science teaching approach, students are really engaged.
Changemakers: How does your Sci-Ed Fellows program fit into this strategy?
Basu: We started by asking the question: How do we build out to ensure that many science teachers have access to the method of democratic science teaching? Democratic science education is a framework of methods, tools, methodologies; you can’t just put that in a textbook.
So we created this program called the Sci-Ed Fellows. Its objective is to engage and support science teachers from inner-city schools to improve student engagement, and thereby their scores. It’s a yearlong experience that includes workshops, in-person meetings, and online collaboration, introducing teachers to the democratic science education framework. One of the most effective tools the Sci-Ed Fellows employ is called "Windows into the Classroom." It's an online wiki-space that facilitates teacher collaboration. Using this tool, teachers share tips on improving student voice in science curriculum. Sci-Ed Fellows report that the tool has a significant and positive impact on their lessons.
The Sci-Ed Fellows program also showcases the work of the students and teachers at a very exciting Sci-Ed Innovators Expo in February. This year, we had 1,300 students and teachers participating.
Changemakers: What does this look like in the classroom?
Basu: Let me give you an example of a method that was shared between the fellows for teaching cell biology. The teachers have found that they just cannot engage the students to understand what’s going on with cell biology. So one teacher came up with this very cute way of engaging them. She made up a game.
You know “Simon Says?” She created the game, “Ms. Rubin Says.” When she says, “Ms. Rubin says, ‘Mitochondria’,” the students come up with ways of representing mitochondria with their bodies.
Some kids put their arms around their sides, and that’s how they think of mitochondria. All these signs, gestures, and actions help the students internalize the concepts. And because the students come up with them themselves, they can better understand what it means.
The amazing thing that teachers find: the students now communicate with each other using the gestures. The teachers found a high correlation between Regent’s Exam scores and students going through this kind of democratic science teaching.
The students were so engaged. They will tell you things like, “I will never ever forget about this in the future.”
Changemakers: Why is improving STEM-rich learning important?
Basu: You can ask the question — and I know many people have — “If I’m not interested in science, why should I know science? Why is it important?” We believe that STEM education is not just about learning those subjects.
In the world that we live in and the world of the future, science and technology are an integral part of our lives. Science and technology are all around us. Giving students access to science education helps them become engaged and have a voice.
It transforms their lives, their communities, and helps them become really productive citizens in their world. STEM education is a must for every kid in the United States.
Changemakers: So how can democratizing science education improve outcomes for students in the long term?
Basu: I think that there are at least two positive outcomes of STEM education. The first is that it gives students access to many different careers. You can relate just about any career back to science and math related fields, and doing so is a great way of demonstrating to students that you don’t have to be a scientist or engineer to benefit from STEM-rich learning.
Jhumki used to say that STEM education transforms, not just the students’ lives, but also their communities and their world. We’re realizing right now what that really means. This is the second outcome of STEM education. It allows the students to understand the science and then share it with their community to make the community better.
One good lesson that demonstrated this was a lesson on obesity. One of the methods the teachers used was to have the students figure out the different ingredients in whatever they ate.
They actually broke the food they were eating into components, then played a game where they swapped components with one another. It was a great way for them to learn what they were eating, and what it was doing to their bodies.
Students started to question the food that was served in the cafeteria, and worked to change what was being offered. They even took the lesson back to their homes, to their families. They started to look in supermarkets for different kinds of foods.
We’ve had parents tell us how their kids are bringing these questions home, and it’s causing them to think about what kinds of foods they’re putting on the table. And it is apparently a very fun — can you imagine the word “fun”? — dinner conversation.
Changemakers: What has inspired you to take such a strong leadership role in STEM education?
Basu: The inspiration comes from being engaged with Jhumki and her colleagues: her science teacher friends, her professor friends, and many people who would just traipse through the house.
I’m an engineer, I love technology, I love science. I worked with Hewlett-Packard in software and started the first Hewlett-Packard office in India in 1987. I’ve worked in ultrasound imaging, and I started a software company and took it public; I was the CEO there. But what really inspired me about science education is the teachers’ passion in making STEM engaging and fun for students.
I’m also inspired by seeing technology innovations in the field. In rural areas, technology is transforming the access that those communities have to clean water, renewable energy, economic development and empowerment, mobile phone access. It’s transforming the lives of people below the poverty line.
When I see that science and technology is doing that, and that I’m part of that revolution, then it becomes easy to say that every child in the United States must have access to this education. Young people must be literate in science and technology, because it is an integral part of being a citizen of the world.
Changemakers: What led you become involved with this competition and to fund two prizes in this competition?
Basu: Ashoka is the place where social entrepreneurship really came into being. And Changemakers is a vehicle through which the best innovations are brought to the fore.
There are so many examples of innovations that have earned attention because of Changemakers, and have really taken off and had a large impact. If we want to identify new methods and new approaches to science teaching and democratic science teaching—particularly for minority youth—I think Changemakers is the way to do it.
Secondly, we want to make it possible to bring the best minds to this question. Oftentimes, those are the people that are not heard — because they’re not big, or they don’t have the money, or they are not looking at these kinds of competitions. So our prizes are specifically focused on science teaching and education for underserved kids. It’s focused on science teachers, students, and anybody that has bright ideas that can be scaled.
Lastly, partnerships are an important element of the Changemakers competitions; it’s one of the reasons we are participating so strongly and sponsoring two prizes. Achieving high-quality STEM education really involves partnerships.
The Jhumki Basu Foundation is a strategic partner with the Department of Education of New York City, New York University, and even corporations. There are many aspects of these partnerships that are important. We believe strongly in the power of partnerships; it’s the platform on which the foundation was built.
Remember, the deadline for our Partnering for Excellence: Innovations in Science + Technology + Engineering + Math Education competition is August 3rd!