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Boulder Valley, St. Vrain Middle-schoolers Become Epidemic Experts

July 14, 2010
Boulder Valley, St. Vrain middle-schoolers become epidemic experts Enrichment program focuses on high-achieving students at 'critical point' in their education By Amy Bounds Camera Staff Writer Boulder Daily Camera Posted:07/06/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT LAFAYETTE -- Emma Auerbach wants to be a doctor and has an interest in pandemics. So the Boulder 12-year-old, who attends Centennial Middle School, decided a rigorous academic summer camp on flu, SARS and other epidemics would be a good start to learning more. "It's really fun," she said. "I might have learned a little more than my 14-year-old brother. I'm definitely doing it again next year." About 30 high-achieving Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley middle school students are spending five weeks this summer in an enrichment program at Lafayette's Alexander Dawson School. At noon Friday, they'll present exhibits on what they've learned at the University of Colorado's ATLAS building. The program, open to public school students who competed for spots, is paid for by the Dawson Center Foundation. The Las Vegas-based foundation helped start Alexander Dawson School, but now is a separate entity. Dawson Center Executive Director Kevin Cloud said the eventual goal is to enroll 200 students in both the Lafayette program and a similar one in Las Vegas. He said the foundation decided to focus on middle school because "that's the critical point where decisions are made." To make sure there are no barriers to students attending, lunch and transportation are provided and there's no tuition. Putting knowledge to work The students started the session by learning math and science concepts, along with getting a primer on humanitarian issues. They also heard from local experts, including a University of Colorado professor who wrote a book on the 1918 influenza epidemic and a Boulder County disease control specialist. "Our students become experts very quickly," Cloud said. For a hands-on experience, they took a field trip to Lafayette's Exempla Good Samaritan Hospital. At Exempla, they went through the creation of an outbreak action plan with the help of hospital staff members, from a doctor to someone in finance. "You're learning a lot of stuff you wouldn't learn in school," said Jesse Zhang, a 12-year-old at Boulder's Southern Hills Middle School. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance." Now, they're putting their knowledge to work on two projects. One is developing a hand-washing campaign for third-graders in local schools. The other is putting together epidemic response plans for several local businesses. Students said they like that the program includes "real" work. "I thought it would be really fun to put what we're learning to actual use," said 12-year-old Caitlyn Lee, a student at Boulder's Summit Middle School. "I thought it would be good to do something to help and inform people. I didn't know that much about this topic. I learned that it's really important." She said she also likes the social aspects of the program, calling her classmates "awesome." 'Cool to be smart' After the program ends, organizers are committed to keeping the students in touch with each other through high school. Lisa Michael, the program's academic advisor, said it's often not easy to embrace being smart in middle school, especially for girls. "I want to keep them together as a peer group," she said. "I want them to know it's cool to be smart." Education innovations also are a component of the program. To take notes, the students mainly are using iPads. They're also learning graphic recording -- a new way to take notes or record group work, used in corporate America -- that combines pictures and phrases to create a visual map of ideas and concepts. Class instructor Janine Underhill, a consultant who teaches graphic recording to businesses like Hewlett Packard and Coca-Cola, said the concept lends itself to making connections between ideas and provides a group memory of a discussion. "You're able to tell the story and keep the story in front of you," Underhill said. "You can see where the conversation started and where it went." Lexxi Reddington, a 13-year-old at Broomfield's Aspen Creek K-8, said she plans to try the "really cool" technique in her regular classes. "It's a good way to organize ideas," she said. "It's such a better way to take notes." Valerie Keeney, a high school science teacher who's teaching in the program this summer, said most middle school students would be horrified at the prospect of an intense five weeks of academic summer classes -- but not these students. "These kids love this," she said. "They're so eager to learn. I'm really impressed with them. Sometimes, I forget how young they are."