Northside High School students In a fourth-grade classroom at Hackett Elementary, University of Arkansas - Fort Smith professor Dave McGinnis uses a banana frozen with liquid nitrogen to hammer a nail into a wooden board to demonstrate the effect of molecules slowed by temperature.


That same week, students of an Advanced Placement psychology class at Northside High School dissected sheep brains under the direction of UAFS professor Nicha Otero.


“That is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” student Brynn Trahan said after she cut through a brain with a scalpel. “Med school, here I come!”


Her excitement is the norm for students participating in the inaugural year of the Adopt-a-Professor program created by the Education Renewal Zone at UAFS. The initiative pairs pre-K-12 teachers from local schools with university professors in a collaborative effort to enhance learning, acquaint students with the university, and provide community outreach to the Fort Smith region.


“UAFS is a regional institution, and a major component of being such an institution is outreach and being an asset to the community,” said Jenn Jennings Davis, director of the ERZ. “The Adopt-a-Professor program is a natural fit with the university’s mission and the mission of the ERZ.” 


The program, which began for the first time at UAFS this spring, coordinates three engagements per semester between each professor, teacher, and their students. Professors may visit the classrooms to teach lessons, host students at the UAFS campus for hands-on learning with the university’s facilities, or arrange for students and teachers to connect with the community.


The lessons UAFS professors and teachers design have a twofold purpose: to provide innovative, interactive lessons to the students that complement what they are already learning in the classroom, and to also provide them learning experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have in school.


“We’re pairing highly qualified teachers with university professors to find innovative, fresh ways to teach students,” Jennings Davis said. “This semester has been both energetic and synergetic. Eleven professors and 15 teachers have completed 34 learning engagements with over 1,000 student contacts. That’s a lot of opportunities for learning.”


Area schools participating in the program are Alma Middle School, Hackett Elementary, Hackett High School, Lavaca Elementary, Lavaca Middle School, and Northside High School in Fort Smith. 


For students of the AP Psychology course, the dissection of the brains, which were provided by the ERZ, took the study of the mind out of the textbook and into their hands. Otero walked students through how to take measurements of the brain before students cut the brains with a scalpel to study and identify different parts of the organ.  


“I didn’t really realize where everything was in comparison to each other until I actually got to see it,” Northside High School student Alex Emms said. “You don’t get to do this sort of hands-on stuff in the classroom normally, so when Dr. Otero comes in and helps us get a deeper look into it, it’s a lot easier to understand it.”


Professors have made similar impacts at other schools. Dave Mayo, assistant professor of geology at UAFS, worked with 60 students across three classes at Lavaca Elementary through the program. Mayo spoke to them about careers in geology during one interaction, and took them across Sebastian County to study outcroppings of rock during another.


Tom WingThe students also visited the UAFS campus for more hands-on activities, spending a morning rotating through three different labs, each with its own experiments. For some, UAFS was the first college campus they’ve visited. 


“This sort of interconnectivity is unbeatable in terms of outreach to students in the city and county,” Mayo said. “Many of them have never set foot on a college campus. They’ve heard about college, and some of them may be intimidated by it. But I think they came away thinking ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool. That’s something I could do.’ I hope it puts a little seed in their mind that college is a real possibility for them.”


The professors also reap benefits from the visits. Not only does it help build relationships between UAFS and public schools, it also sheds light into the educational background of current and future UAFS students.


“It gives us some insight into what our UAFS students have as a background around them,” Mayo said. “We know where they come from, but we may not know what kind of curriculum changes might have been made since we were in school or had last visited a school.”


But most importantly, Adopt-a-Professor bridges the learning experience between grade school and college. And it shows the joys of learning transcend classrooms.


After Trahan’s exclamation during the brain dissection at Northside, Jennings Davis smiled.


“Students are reacting like that in every classroom,” she said. “That’s the power of outstanding, collaborative teaching. The kids are the greatest beneficiaries.”


The Education Renewal Zone at UAFS is one of six ERZs in the state. It is a collaborative effort among 11 member school districts and 35 partner schools in the Arkansas River Valley. Its mission is to collaborate with pre-K-16 educators, students, families and their supporting communities to combine efforts to improve achievement and learning experiences for all students. 


Article by John Post, Director of Public Information
Photo Credits: 
Photos by Rachel Putman, Photographer, Marketing and Communications Office
Date Posted: 
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
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