Taking Science to Middle School

August 12, 2005

Durham, N.C. -- This month, more than 40 Durham middle school students spent a week on campus solving scientific problems in a program run entirely by Duke students.

The theme for this year’s InnoWorks program, which ended Wednesday, Aug. 10, was “Making Sense of Senses.”

Joseph Caldwell from Smithfield Middle School explained one principle he discovered about the sense of hearing. “We learned if you ring a bell inside a jar you can hear it, but if there’s no air, you can’t hear it,” he said.

“And that’s called [a] medium,” Shanice Liles from ChewningMiddle School added about air’s role in propagating sound.

Duke senior Billy Hwang and his collaborators launched the first InnoWorks program last summer near Hwang’s hometown of Potomac, Md. This year, they have recruited some 60 college students and secured sponsorships to run InnoWorks programs, free of charge, at Duke and Maryland.

“A lot of students, especially the children we’re working with, generally think that experts just know a lot; they can just tell you things,” said Hwang, an Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke. “But we want to show them, when you don’t know the answer it’s not a problem; you just need to know how to use your resources, what you have at hand, to arrive at a solution. That’s really empowering.”

Hwang said the genesis of InnoWorks goes back to his experience at a science and math magnet high school in Maryland, which was located within a school in a broader community. He particularly remembers a friend on the track team not enrolled in the magnet school.

“Through his eyes, I saw the unseen hardships and lack of opportunities he and many other ‘underprivileged’ kids face,” Hwang wrote in the preface to the InnoWorks staff manual. “I realized the unfair labeling some tend to apply to such groups, without fully appreciating their circumstances.”