News Release: People, Research, Student Life, Teaching

Sep. 11,  2008

Student Broadens Science Horizons

From Emory Report

Sometimes you have to go to a really dark place to see the light.

"It's hard to describe how it affects you, looking at a far away galaxy. It can blow your mind," says Jessica Hammock, explaining why she and her husband regularly make the two-hour trek to the Deerlick Astronomy Village, one of the darkest spots in the Southeast.

Hammock, who is pursuing a doctorate in educational studies in the Graduate School, had an epiphany after peering through the telescope one night. Why not combine her passion for astronomy and her commitment to science education to introduce inner-city kids to the joys of stargazing?

She sketched out her idea for such a program, dubbed it Project Epiphany, and posted it on The Web site, sponsored by credit card company Advanta, holds a monthly contest for the best small business idea. Project Epiphany generated the most votes from visitors to the site for June, netting Hammock a $10,000 prize to spend on the program. She plans to use the money to create hands-on activities for the East Atlanta Kids Club, including daytime viewing with a solar telescope and camping trips for stargazing, in combination with the Sierra Club. Her husband, Chris, an IT professional, is also involved in the project.

"There aren’t a lot of programs focused on giving children growing up in high poverty areas a chance to explore the sky through a telescope,” Hammock says. “One of the things that we want to get across to the kids is the scale of the universe — that they are just one organism on this pale blue dot in this vast universe. It can open up whole other worlds of science and opportunities for them."

Hammock earned a bachelors degree in psychology at Pomona College before coming to Atlanta through Teach for America, to teach first grade at an inner-city school. Although she was frustrated by the lack of time to work science into the curriculum, she found creative ways to do so.

For instance, during a discussion on the water cycle, her students described clouds as containers that hold water. To clear up this misconception, Hammock had them fill a cup with water, cover it with plastic wrap, and place it in the sun. As the water warmed up, condensation turned the plastic wrap cloudy. By tapping on the plastic, the students could cause precipitation.

"That's one of my favorite lessons," Hammock says. "First- graders absolutely get it when they see it happen. It's a huge misconception that young children aren't ready to learn scientific concepts," she adds, noting that we begin in infancy to comprehend basic physics concepts like how objects support one another.

“By focusing on science early, teachers can have a profound impact on how kids organize the knowledge they gain through observation. Another reason to focus on science at a young age is that we need more high school and college student pursuing careers in science. That interest needs to be fostered.”

After two years of teaching, Hammock entered Emory’s Ph.D. program in cognitive and developmental psychology, to study how children build concepts in their minds. She switched to educational studies because she felt a sense of urgency about researching policies for science instruction, which is slipping through the cracks as schools struggle to keep up with the demands of “No Child Left Behind” and other reform initiatives.

“There aren’t enough people really looking carefully at what’s happening to science as schools are reforming,” Hammock says.


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