Can Aspen students think like a scientist?
Little did Aspen restaurateur Jimmy Yeager and physics expert David Pines, upon meeting 15 or 16 years ago, realize then their friendship would provide the springboard for what they hope changes the way middle school students think.
Pines and Yeager are part of the group Global Partnership for Science Education Through Engagement, which aims to teach young students how to think like a scientist through hands-on learning, as opposed to committing facts to memory when test-time arrives, and later forgetting them.
The Aspen School District will host a pilot program for that approach to learning this fall when two high school students, Luca Morrow-Yeager and Jesse Lopez, mentor seventh- and eighth-graders during an after-school program on early-release Wednesdays.
“It’s going to be quite an experiment,” Yeager said, “and it will be interesting to see how it evolves.”
The program is the by-product of a friendship Yeager and Pines hatched over not only their mutual affinity for Southwestern cuisine and adult beverages, but also the world of science. Their friendship grew over the years and, as Yeager tells it: Pines — whose accolades include work as the founding director of the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter and the International Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter, as well as the recipient of multiple awards in his field — made Yeager’s son, Morrow-Yeager, his honorary grandson.
Over the years Pines and Morrow-Yeager would regularly chat about physics, astrophysics and science — heady subjects for anybody no matter what their age. Price, during a morning break Friday at the first day of the inaugural Think Like a Scientist Summit at The Inn at Aspen, said Morrow-Yeager showed an eagerness to learn and a promising future.
Morrow-Yeager is now 14 and on track to graduate from Aspen High School after just three years. And just as his father and Pines have bonded over the years, Morrow-Yeager has found a like-minded colleague in Lopez, who will be a junior next year at Aspen High.
The two met roughly two years ago through their common ties as musicians. Morrow-Yeager’s approach to learning, thinking like a scientist, rubbed off on Lopez, who had struggled in his classes.
“Back then, in my freshman year, I didn’t like science,” Lopez told a group of global scientists and educators at Friday’s summit, a closed-door function that concludes Monday. “It was an exhausting curriculum and I didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
But Morrow-Yeager’s influence made an impression on Lopez. And it changed the way he tackled his academic subjects.
“He started me to think like a scientist,” Lopez said. “And when I started to think like a scientist, everything changed for me. The classes became more open. I felt I was more free to explore each subject. I started to improve my grades, and I started to fall in love with science.”
Lopez even found non-science classes, such as literature, less daunting and more interesting.
“I can say that I actually look forward to going to classes,” Lopez said.
Said Luca Morrow-Yeager: “When I first met Jesse, he had barely heard of physics. Now he spends two or three hours a day on it.”
Not to mention spring break.
The two joined Yeager for a trip earlier this year on what they called a “physics spring break road trip” working with Pines where he lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This fall, Morrow-Yeager and Lopez, with the aid of Jackie Francis, a former director of the Aspen Science Center now with TLS/Aspen, and others, will lead an after-school club that will focus on thinking like a scientist and emergent thinking. The student-teachers stand to benefit as much, if not more, from the classes as their students.
“I can see how this program would work,” said Francis, who is one year shy of earning her master’s degree in energy policy and climate science from Johns Hopkins University. “The idea of thinking like a scientist is so important to our society … thinking more critically like scientists.”
Part of that thinking centers around creating numerous solutions to problems instead of just one. That’s because, Yeager and Pines said, oftentimes numerous factors can contribute to a problem, meaning numerous solutions are needed.
Yeager envisions the first semester being a 10-week program with roughly 10 middle-schoolers from the Aspen school, Aspen Country Day and Aspen Community School. The spring semester would expand to 15 weeks and possibly 20 to 30 students under the tutelage of Morrow-Yeager and Lopez.
“If I can do it,” Morrow-Yeager said, “then why can’t I help everyone else to do it. People thinking more critically, and well, like scientists.”
His father emphasized that way of thinking would not apply exclusively to the sciences. Exploring deeper into music, photography, or anything else could be used under this approach.
“This is not really for the science-minded particularly,” he said. “It’s for all mindsets.”
The application process for students to participate in the program likely will launch in July, Yeager said.
Pines is confident the Aspen program will catch on in other school districts.
“We have high hopes that this will go viral,” Pines said. “I’ve already found in describing this to at least a half a dozen other places that they are interested to see how it could be done there.”
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