everyday SCIENCE An Innovative Project with Urban Teens

At a New York homeless shelter in the South Bronx, teacher and researcher Dana Fusco was offered a unique opportunity.15 She was asked to work with a group of young people between the ages of 12 and 16 to develop a science project. The teens had already faced many difficulties in their lives; when this project started, the participants were living in the shelter with their families.

When Fusco started working with the teens, her goal was for the project to emerge from the kids’ own interests and frame of reference. She didn’t want to impose her ideas on them. Rather, she wanted them to experience a process of reflection and discussion about issues that were of concern to them. From that point, she hoped that they would be able to reach a consensus about a group project. Ideally, the project would be personally meaningful, reflect what they had learned about science, and would benefit the community.

Fusco began by asking the teens what problems they were familiar with. Immediately, they started talking about teen pregnancy, AIDS, gangs, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and racism—all experiences within their personal frame of reference. To express their views, the teens created a group collage, which they hung up at their meeting place.

After the teens had articulated their concerns, the group turned their attention to what they could do to address these problems. Fusco shared with them other projects that had been undertaken by urban youth. She mentioned awareness campaigns, community cleanup projects, mural painting, and gardening. Then Fusco mentioned that the teens had permission to use the lot across from the shelter as the site for their project.

At their next meeting, the participants investigated the lot. Although it was strewn with garbage, drug needles, and other debris, the kids immediately recognized its potential. One boy recalled that at one time, people had planted “stuff” in the back of the lot, but the plot had been burned. Other kids decided that their first step in moving forward with a plan should be measuring the lot. They began by coming up with makeshift strategies. One boy counted the number of steps it took to walk across the lot. Another group counted the number of concrete blocks lining the fence.

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