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The Wooten Initiative

The Wooten Initiative
Michael Wu (back left, with glasses) and Trieu Pham (furthest right) with other members of Stan Roux's FRI research stream.

Michael Wu and Trieu Pham didn’t join the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) in order to teach fourth and fifth graders how to do science. They joined the pioneering, research-based academic program in order to learn how to do science themselves. What they found once they got to the FRI, however, was that learning and teaching are part of one continuous process of discovery.

In the research stream of plant biologist Stan Roux, in particular, students learn not just by doing research—into the mechanisms of root hair growth in Arabidopsis, for example—but by passing on what they’ve learned to others, either as mentors within the undergraduate stream or as mentors to kids at Wooten Elementary School in north Austin.

“It’s always been part of the mission of the FRI to reach out to the community,” says Dr. Greg Clark, outreach coordinator for the FRI, “but thinking of it as just outreach misses the point. Teaching, communicating and learning from your students is so much a part of what it means to be a scientist.”

In order to make the commitment to Wooten consistent, and sustainable, Clark requires every student in the Roux stream to receive mentor training in the spring semester of their freshman year. The next fall, those students who’ve continued on with the research program are given the option of committing to three to four visits to Wooten over the course of the school year. About half of them sign up.

“We have two goals in going to Wooten,” says Wu, a fourth-year honors biology major. “We want to help [the students] develop a workable idea for their science fair project, and we want to teach them about the scientific method—how to construct an experiment, how to collect and present the data, and so on.”

For Wu, who’s been accepted into both medical school and the Teach for America program for the fall of 2010, the mentoring at Wooten is part of a broader process of figuring out how to integrate teaching into the scientific life.

“As a student,” says Wu, “I’m pretty immersed in the classroom and the lab, and it’s nice to have the chance to apply the science you’re learning in a different context, and to help the community while you’re doing it.”

For Pham, a third-year biology major who hopes to go on to medical school, the program has a very personal appeal.

“I grew up in a school kind of like that,” says Pham, “a low SES [socio-economic status] school. It means a lot to go back to a community you can relate to, and to help them. I didn’t have these kinds of opportunities, to think about science in a more creative way. It was all test scores, just practice and practice.”

Working with the kids at Wooten, say Wu and Pham, is also just a lot of fun. The kids are excited about their projects—the topics range from dinosaurs and volcanoes to the effect of different colored lights on the growth of corn—and they enjoy the attention they get.

“The first time we go, they’re pretty quiet,” says Pham. “By the second time they’re your best friends. They’re so excited to see us.”

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Sunday, 26 September 2021

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