Michael Barnett

Even as he was accepting the prestigious Carnegie Foundation Massachusetts Teacher of the Year award in Washington, D.C., last November, Michael Barnett was eager to get back to Boston. One of his singular hands-on science education programs—teaching public high school students to grow hydroponic fruits and vegetables and then sell them at farmers’ markets in underserved areas of the city—had launched the day before.

Barnett and his Boston College colleagues are using his recently awarded $1.2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to implement and study the impact of a hydroponic farming project, using solar panels and windmills to help power the indoor gardens at Boston’s Salvation Army Kroc Center. The project, “Seeding the Future: Creating a Green Collar Workforce,” is funded through the NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program and will engage approximately 1,000 students and 40 to 60 teachers at 20 schools.

Barnett, an associate professor at the Lynch School of Education, specializes in using innovative research projects to pique and sustain interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) among college undergraduates and students attending urban high schools. Over the past decade, he and fellow Boston College researchers have received close to $10 million in external funding, mostly from the NSF. In the 2012–13 academic year alone, the NSF awarded Barnett a total of $1.65 million to support programs that bring STEM subjects and research skills to undergradu- ates who aren’t science majors, to teachers, and to high school students in the Lynch School’s College Bound academic enrichment and support program serving public high schools in the city of Boston.

As he introduces students to research, Barnett conducts his own, gathering data while he explores new ways to teach science. In the process, he discovers what draws and engages students who tend to shy away from the subject, and studies how to attract high school and first-generation college students to STEM study.

Barnett and a group of undergraduate researchers used state-of-the-art Air Quality Eggs—do-it-yourself air-pollution sensors—and touch-screen technology to measure air-quality data and share it with a network of interested community members in Boston neighborhoods. In another program, Barnett and a group of students in the College Bound program used special software to collaborate with a community development corporation to create a master plan for an underused parcel of urban land.

Projects such as the hydroponic farming program at the Kroc Center—growing food indoors using mineral nutrient solutions dissolved in water—vividly illustrate Barnett’s approach to science education. When students grow their own food, he says, they aren’t just using applied chemistry, physics, biology, and economics and learning about the optimum amounts of sunlight, water, and nutrients their plants need to flourish. They are also tackling the larger societal problem of “food deserts”—areas lacking access to full-service grocery stores—in their own lower-income neighborhoods. As part of the program, they explore reasons there are so few grocery stores in some urban areas, research the best locations in which to market their products, and learn the basics of social entrepreneurship as they craft and run a community-focused business.

Social entrepreneurship—identifying novel ways of addressing a pressing social need—is a focal point of Barnett’s work with College Bound students, he says. In learning what it means to be an entrepreneur, students acquire new skills they can apply to solving problems—or creating their own jobs. “Today, the ability to create your own job is really the only kind of job security that remains in our economic system,” Barnett says.

Barnett’s research reveals that urban high school students who understand the science of growing their own food are more likely to develop not only critical thinking and analytical skills but also an interest in science and healthier eating habits. The hands-on programs and research are all part of Barnett’s attempt to plug what he calls the “leaky STEM pipeline”—the dwindling interest of high school students in science, technology, engineering, and math as the subjects get more intense and complicated. Barnett says he is particularly interested in learning how students work through barriers and solve tough problems as they pursue science research. He tries to counter an inclination he says he has observed during student interviews: the students’ tendency to assume they simply can’t do any kind of advanced science work and that science is only for “smart” people.

Barnett says his research analyzing how his programs affect high school students has yielded promising results. Student engagement, frequently modest during the difficult first year of a project, rises dramatically in each subsequent year students spend in the program as they become interested in science linked to family, community, and social issues that matter to them. Slightly more than half the College Bound students who have participated in Barnett’s experiments over the years have gone on to study STEM-related subjects in college; three College Bound alumni—all of them students of color—have become Gates Scholars, receiving full college tuition scholar- ships to the schools of their choice.

Barnett’s overall goal for his students? “Let’s build a generation of role models,” he says. Although he’s a first-generation college student himself, he suspects students may not necessarily take notice if he shares his own story of what studying science has meant to him. “But if [it’s] another person from their neighborhood, who has done it and been successful—that means a lot.”