The Santa Fe Alliance for Science (SFAFS)
A large state of stunning but austere beauty, New Mexico is often called “the land of enchantment.” Next year Santa Fe will celebrate its founding by the Spanish, 400 years ago, as the capital of the Territory of New Mexico. It is the oldest capital city of the 50 states, presiding over a rich cultural and multilingual mixture of Native, Hispanic and Anglo Americans. Of all states New Mexico has the largest percentage population of Hispanic and Mexican Americans (42%) and is home to 22 indigenous native American pueblos (about 10% of the state population).
In spite of its natural beauty and cultural charm, there is concern here about what the future might hold for our people. New Mexico ranks 45th in median family income ($43,508 in 2008) and our students persistently rank very poorly compared to those in other states in academic performance, especially in K-12 math and science. Our high school graduation rate has dipped below 60% and is declining. Quality Counts, the annual evaluation of all states by Education Week magazine, this year ranked New Mexico last in its “chance for success” index. It is difficult to attract STEM-oriented businesses to New Mexico because we lack a suitably trained workforce and good public schools. Businesses already here often have to recruit workers from outside New Mexico.
Fortunately the news is not all bad. Our state government is well aware of these issues and relatively speaking has been generous in funding K-12 education. New Mexico spends about $9,525 per student, 29th in the U.S., a much larger number than one might expect based on our low median family income. In addition, largely because of the huge Federal investment at LANL and SNL and at military bases around the state, New Mexico has the 3rd highest per capita ratio of STEM professionals in the U.S.
Based on the belief that this large, highly talented pool of technical professionals could help improve K-12 math and science education in Santa Fe, the Santa Fe Alliance for Science (www.sfafs.org) was created in May, 2005. It follows similar activities established in the late 1980’s by SNL in Albuquerque (the Sandia SciAd program) and by NASA and the White Sands Missile range in Las Cruces (the Science Education Alliance). These excellent activities are still going strong.SFAFS is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. It comprises over 90 STEM volunteers working mostly in the Santa Fe public schools to help improve K-12 math and science education. Volunteer activities and level of engagement are quite varied and the organization has evolved in ways that we did not expect when we started. Our activities include:
- An extensive tutoring activity at the two major high schools, focusing on core math and science courses. We spend as much time tutoring in pre-algebra, algebra and geometry as we do in the sciences, reflecting the poor level of math preparation that students receive in elementary school. Last semester SFAFS volunteers contributed well over 200 hours of tutoring and over 400 student interactions. Tutoring is available at fixed hours several days each week. Tutors are offered an honorarium of $20/contact hour, but few take it.
- A large-scale effort with elementary school science fairs, working with students to select projects and then serving as judges. Last year SFAFS was involved with 15 fairs and the district Science Expo. SFAFS impacted over 1100 students and teachers via this activity.
- An evening “Science Café for Young Thinkers” program featuring discussions with students on a wide variety of frontier science topics. We schedule about 8 of these per year and average attendance is about 80 per event. Each Café presenter also appears on the KSFR Radio Café the day of the event.
- Volunteers teaching full physics and engineering courses in a local high school or the Santa Fe Community College.
- Visits to elementary and middle-school classrooms to talk about science. This activity has not been nearly as large as we expected, but the discussion topics have been interesting (e.g. what is life?, the atomic bomb, paleontology, cosmology and astronomy, and others)
- With the Santa Fe Institute, awarding an annual “Prize for Scientific Excellence” to the leading senior at each of the 11 local graduating high schools, and to one science teacher. Each award is $1000.
- Beginning soon, a program of professional enrichment for teachers.
SFAFS has also worked at the Santa Fe Community College, at local charter schools, the Santa Fe Indian School, the Cochiti pueblo, with the Pojoaque Valley schools, and with New Mexico MESA.
Assessment of SFAFS activity remains a bit problematic. We know that SFAFS is quite popular but we don’t usually have measures of direct impact on student performance. That’s because our usual interaction with a student is not long-term so we don’t see test scores, papers or course grades.
SFAFS has been fortunate to receive financial support from local businesses and anonymous donors. We’ve also received substantial support from the LANL Foundation and the NSF. This year our expenses will be about $20,000. SFAFS has no salaried employees.
Let me identify a few “lessons learned.” Most important is that you can be successful establishing an activity like SFAFS, but it takes patience and therefore time. The key is to establish trust with teachers, principals and district leaders. This is based mostly on mutual respect and an appreciation of the difficulties. For STEM folks, it’s important to recognize that we are “content” experts and not “pedagogy” experts, and that modesty is a virtue. The key word is “partnership.” Also keep in mind that the high school of today – a very complex social organization with many responsibilities – bears almost no resemblance to what we experienced as teenagers. One soon learns that “blaming the schools” for our problems in education is naive at best. In fact, schools are a reasonably accurate reflections of our society as a whole.
SFAFS has enjoyed outstandingly good relations with the Santa Fe Public School district and the remarkable energy and commitment of its corps of volunteers. Without these things we would have gone nowhere. In closing, I record my profound thanks to all of these colleagues.
Bob Eisenstein is the director of the Santa Fe Alliance for Science. He was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and was educated at Oberlin College, Yale University (PhD) and the Weizmann Institute (Rehovot, Israel). He spent many years on the physics faculties of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Illinois, where he often taught physics to freshmen and sophomore engineering students. He also spent more than a decade at the National Science Foundation, and for a brief time was president of the Santa Fe Institute. From Fall, 2007 until Fall, 2009 he chaired the New Mexico Math and Science Advisory Council. He and his wife Karolyn have two grown children. He can be reached at 505-990-5966.
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