Smithsonian partners with Aspen school project

Aspen High School students Luca Morrow-Yeager and Jesse Lopez will lead an after-school program called "Always Thinking Like a Scientist" on Wednesdays this school year. They will work with upper middle school students on hand-on approaches to problem solving. The Smithsonian also is helping get the pilot project off the ground and will be monitoring its progression.

The Smithsonian Science Education Center believes so much in an upcoming after-school program in Aspen that it has become its partner.

That new alliance begins in earnest this fall, when two Aspen High School students, Jesse Lopez and Luca Morrow-Yeager, will be mentor-type instructors to middle school students in a program titled “Always Thinking Like a Scientist,” or ATLAS, on early-release Wednesdays. The Aspen ATLAS sessions will be under the umbrella of the Smithsonian as a proof-of-concept program which, if successful, could be implemented in other after-school clubs throughout the country.

But first, organizers are aiming for the program to have students — primarily eighth-graders from Aspen Middle School, Aspen Community School and Aspen Country Day — this fall semester, with possibly more than 20 in the spring.

Jackie Francis, a former director of the Aspen Science Center now with TLS/Aspen, will help lead the club’s effort of thinking like a scientist and emergent thinking. The 10 fall sessions will last two hours each; another 12 to 15 sessions will be offered in the spring. Sept. 1 is the deadline for students to sign-up at ​​

“The immediate goal with our first semester is to set an idea of looking at science in a different way,” said Morrow-Yeager, who turns 15 this week and will technically be a sophomore, though he is on a three-year graduation track. “Hopefully we’ll get more people interested in the second semester.”

Aspen Middle School Principal Craig Rogers is on board with the program, which intends for students — no matter what their interests — to look at science through critical thinking, collaboration and hands-on learning.

“It will provide innovative opportunities for the kids, and it’s helping the kids to think in an emergent way,” Rogers said. “And with that understanding, there are multiple ways to solve things, and we want kids to think in a way that explores that.”

Lopez, 16, a junior, said: “It’s a new concept that not a lot of people are doing. I feel that it’s a new way for people to learn and how to express themselves and face everyday challenges.”

The website for Global Partnership for Science Education — — breaks down the approach of thinking like a scientist and provides a checklist for students and their mentors on how to tackle the concept:

• Be curious — inquire! Never accept that something is unexplainable. We just don’t have the answer yet. Do not think there are black boxes; these are just boxes that we don’t yet understand.

• Learn to look for patterns in your data, whether it is obtained on the web or by recording the results of your own hands-on experiments.

• Carry out experiments or use the web to study the result of using different probes to make measurements and ask how the results might be connected.

• Collaborate and communicate through participation in group work on projects.

The Smithsonian connection

Landing the Smithsonian Science Education Center as a partner was no small feat, but the stars quickly lined up June 8 through 12 during the inaugural Think Like a Scientist Summit at The Inn at Aspen. There, some 15 educators, scientists and others brainstormed on how to collaborate on after-school science programs focused on emergent thinking.

One of the attendees, Carol O’Donnell, director of Smithsonian Science Education Center, learned Lopez and Morrow-Yeager’s ATLAS program and was compelled to have her organization link arms with the effort.

“What I like about this, this in essence is an experiment,” O’Donnell said July 27 on the patio of Jimmy’s Bodega, an Aspen restaurant owned by Jimmy Yeager, father of Morrow-Yeager, whose mother, Heather Morrow, also is involved.

Changing the way people think — like a scientist, that is — can be for anyone, O’Donnell said.

“No matter what their path in life is, whether it’s a restaurant owner, whether it’s a lawyer or an educator, when you are approached with questions in everyday life, you can approach them thinking like a scientist,” she said.

On July 28, the Smithsonian, through its Smithsonian Science Education Center, formalized its alliance with Global Partnership for Science Education Through Engagement’s Think Like a Scientist initiative. That came to fruition by entering a memorandum of understanding with GSEE, in which the Science Education Center would establish the Network for Emergent Scientific Learning with Aspen’s ATLAS program as an experimental pilot program that would test their collaborative new approach to reaching a middle school audience.

“This is not a course like a classroom, it’s not teaching to a test, it’s not teaching facts. It’s teaching connected ideas,” said Jimmy Yeager, who might be better known locally for his restaurant operations than his science endeavors.

Yeager, however, puts much of his time and effort into science education and outreach. His Jimmy’s restaurant has hosted functions for the Aspen Science Center, and he is close friends with renowned physicist David Pines. The two met about 15 or 16 years ago, and are part of GSEE.

Yeager also is handling fundraising for the effort. In addition to the Smithsonian, other organizations behind it include the Nick DeWolf Foundation, which Nicole DeWolf, the daughter of the late computer wiz and Aspen eccentric, helps run.