Barnett honored for innovation on, off campus
By Alex Spanko
If you asked, Associate Professor Michael Barnett would probably tell you he doesn’t seek awards. But if you ask about his work at Boston College, you’ll quickly understand why the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching named him Massachusetts Professor of the Year last month.
Barnett, who joined the Lynch School’s Department of Teacher Education, Special Education, and Curriculum and Instruction in 2002, has made a specialty of using innovative technology not only to educate future science teachers but to encourage their K–12 pupils to become scientists, enter college, or develop better scientific skills.
He also draws scores of undergraduates from across the University to his core courses, such as Living Earth, which he tailors to appeal to non-science majors. Last spring, Barnett opened that class to 116 students—and still had to turn away at least another 125. Barnett’s passion for his subject and talent for turning “the most menial subject into the most enjoyable, humorous, and interesting topic,” have earned his course a reputation as “an experience that you must integrate into your four undergraduate years,” according to Joshua Coyne ’14, a student in the Carroll School.
Maureen Kenny, interim dean of the Lynch School, praises Barnett for combining a love of teaching with rigorous research and community outreach.
Barnett works side by side with undergraduates and high school students in the Lynch School’s College Bound academic enrichment program on what he calls “guerrilla science”—projects that bring free scientific “experiences” to unexpected places in the urban landscape. Graduate students helped develop TouchTree, a cell phone app that identifies the ecological value of trees in urban neighborhoods. Undergraduates will analyze data for interactive computer screens called “touch foils” that Barnett hopes to install in public locations around Boston.
Early this fall, the Lynch School professor was awarded a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant (his eighth from the NSF) to start a hydroponic gardening program at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. Barnett has taught his undergraduates, teachers, and pupils at the St. Columbkille Partnership School in Brighton, and dozens of College Bound students, hydroponic farming—a soil-free method of growing plants in mineral nutrient solutions in water—so they can grow and harvest fruits and vegetables that can be sold at local farmers markets.
College Bound students are now selling peppers and greens grown on the Boston College campus at a Jamaica Plain market, according to Barnett, who has noted that the students use chemistry, physics, biology, and economics to cultivate, manage, and sell their produce. In the process, he says, they also explore the dearth of grocery stores in low-income areas and analyze the business of running a market.
As Barnett sees it, kids become interested in science when it’s linked to family, community, and social issues that matter to them. Indeed, over the past seven years, at least half of the high schoolers he’s taught through College Bound have gone on to major in science, technology, engineering, or math in college.
The Carnegie Foundation feted Barnett and 30 other undergraduate Teacher of the Year honorees at a Washington, D.C., reception November 15. After that, Barnett said, he was eager to get back to Boston: The Kroc Center project had officially launched the day before.