Written by Sherri Welch on CrainsDetroit.com

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A program that will bring fifth-graders from Detroit Public Schools Community District to the Belle Isle Aquarium for lessons focused on the food chain and related topics is expected to launch this fall as part of a research program funded by the National Science Foundation.

The goal of the three-year program, which is funded by a nearly $1.2 million NSF grant to Wayne State University, is to determine if a public institution can increase student interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers, said Amy Emmert, director of education for the Belle Isle Conservancy, the aquarium’s nonprofit operator.

Though the NSF grant was awarded to WSU last fall, the program was only recently approved by the Detroit school district.

The premise of the program is that minority students aren’t as interested in STEM fields as other students and that fifth grade is a time when interest in STEM peaks.

More than 2,300 fifth-grade students from the district are expected to participate in the field trips to the aquarium and related activities.

The program is also training fifth-grade teachers in biological STEM areas related to fisheries, wildlife, conservation and aquatic sciences, with Michigan Technology University collaborating at that piece of the program. The Summer Teacher Institute is teaching teachers, as well, how the field trip program can be integrated into their classroom and strategies for promoting STEM careers to the students, Emmert said.

For its part, Wayne State University will measure the impact of the field trips on students’ attitudes towards STEM and related careers, along with their change in knowledge of science concepts and attitudes toward STEM and STEM-related careers, and teachers’ confidence in teaching the curriculum.

Fifth grade is a critical age during which decisions for lifelong science-related career choices are typically formed, Jeffrey Ram, professor of physiology in Wayne State University’s School of Medicine and principal investigator of the program, said in a statement.

The university expects the NSF-funded program to significantly impact teaching practices and student learning around around STEM topics.

The project “will create exciting communities of learning centered on the Belle Isle Aquarium that are intended to far outlast the lifetime of the grant,” Ram said.

The Belle Isle Conservancy has hired two part-time teachers dedicated to leading the fifth-grade field trips with nine Detroit schools in the coming school year.

Those schools will come for a single field trip, “but we’ll encourage them to come back for more because we have money,” Emmert said.

“We really want them to build a relationship with the aquarium, to feel this is an extension of the classroom.”

The fifth-grade field trips build on the third- and fourth-grade field trips the Belle Isle Conservancy has offered to the aquarium and conservatory on the Detroit island for students in some Detroit and Hamtramck schools the past three years.

Last year, the conservancy provided lessons for more than 1,200 students, Emmert said.

“We see Belle Isle as a classroom as much as a recreational activity,” said Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy.

“By having this very viable relationship with Wayne State University, we are now able to bring NSF funding to the table, which on our own, we would not be able to do.”

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