Imagine you have an exciting new idea for a classroom curriculum, but maybe you aren’t a teacher, and perhaps that curriculum doesn’t exist yet. For Ashley Rice and Alyssa Devlin, two Honors students at UMass Amherst, this is exactly what they set out to do starting in the spring of 2019 while participating in a semester-long internship at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass.
Senior Ashley Rice is a public health and Spanish double-major, and Alyssa Devlin, a public health major with a sociology minor, graduated in December 2019. At the beginning of the spring 2019 internship, they were both given an idea for a deliverable that evolved into a project spanning the course of both the spring and summer when they were invited to come back as paid interns (which then extended into the fall of 2019).
The project involved creating a “comprehensive manual” to accompany a program, recently implemented in a handful of Boston-area public schools, called “Science in the Classroom.” The program is an elementary-school neuroscience program designed to introduce students to concepts while providing mentoring and support along the way.
This first step in creating the manual allowed Alyssa and Ashley to look at “educational disparities” that exist in our system and to connect these directly to the challenges faced by Boston students, all while gathering information on how scientific mentorship programs can play a role in helping students overcome these obstacles.
The literature review involved not only looking at student benefits, but also at the positive impacts on teachers and industry professionals. “Looking at position burnout, MCAS scores, and other indicators, we tried to show why [mentorship programs] are needed, especially in Boston,” explained Ashley. The information gleaned from the review was then incorporated into the manual to provide background information showing that these techniques work and are beneficial to all parties involved.
Prior to creating the manual, a handful of neurologists were already partnering with schools where they would go into classrooms and do hands-on observations with students through activities such as dissecting sheep brains. Ashley and Alyssa’s role as interns was to take this model, package it with information gleaned from studies showing the efficacy of this type of interdisciplinary, intergenerational work, and add new lesson plans that could be introduced in other classrooms. Working with the head neurologist at Brigham & Women’s and one of the elementary school teachers at the Maurice J. Tobin School in Mission Hill, the K-8 school where the model was being piloted, Ashley and Alyssa created three new lesson plans that were added to the two that were already being implemented in classrooms.
Not only did they work on creating the content for these lessons, but they also had the opportunity to go into the classroom to teach them to students. “It was a really cool experience because you get to interact with little kids and see what they really like – and maybe some things they don’t like,” said Ashley. “We also incorporated some of those parts into the manual, including helpful tips for physicians and teachers when this happens, because students aren’t going to like the smell of a sheep brain.”
As of December 2019, the three lesson plans that Ashley and Alyssa constructed had not yet been tested in the classroom, but they did have a chance to be there for the sheep brain dissection activity. Alyssa recalled that, in response to the foreign materials they found themselves working with, “some of the students asked ‘Well… how did you… get this? Where did these come from?’” Despite the off-putting smell of the sheep brains, Alyssa noted that “in most cases, I could get every single kid in my small group to at least hold [the brain], even if they didn’t do anything with it.” Some of the students were more enthralled, wanting to be “all in” on the dissection process.
Ashley and Alyssa also created student surveys in order to obtain feedback on how the activities went. This allowed them to identify key lessons and information that students gained as a result of their participation. “For fourth graders to be able to articulate, at least on a very basic level, what different parts of the brain do, is really cool,” says Alyssa.
According to Ashley and Alyssa, the vision for “Science in the Classroom” is to potentially create cohorts of student-mentor groups and perhaps even conduct a long-term observational research study examining impacts of the program. Alyssa explained that one of the main goals is to allow healthcare professionals to diversify their work experience while contributing to the public education system. “The department we were working in has multiple programs that are geared toward workforce development, so this is just one geared more toward younger children,” Alyssa adds. Doctors and industry professionals get the chance to change their routine by going into classrooms and provide teachers with the support they need, while students are introduced to these concepts at a critical age. All in all, it’s a win-win situation.
Prior to embarking on this internship journey, Ashley credits her public health classes (specifically a course in epidemiology and the Public Health 200-level class) for preparing her for conducting the literature review. Ashley notes that the latter course specifically contributed to her open-mindedness and her ability to “be considerate of all different factors” when going into this research. Alyssa echoed this sentiment, adding that she and Ashley were required to be independent and self-directed throughout each step of the process. Alyssa says that having previously worked in a lab helped introduce her to the steps required in keeping one’s research organized and how to “think with a research mind.”
Alyssa notes that her experience being in the Honors College has played a role in her academic and professional success. “Early on in college, where I was mixed in with huge lecture classes, having Honors classes that were really small let me engage more with the material I’ve been learning and to think more critically.” Ashley speaks to her experience, noting that the material that she has been introduced to in the classroom and through her job as a residence assistant has contributed to her awareness of a variety of systemic issues, such as the school-to-prison pipeline and how this can be addressed within schools in the Boston area. “This has helped fuel the passion I now have for the work that I’m doing.”
Alyssa also feels that the Honors community has inspired her to forge her own path without feeling the need to follow one that has already been defined. “Taking the jump to do this internship—it was a pilot program, and no one had ever done an internship like this before through the School of Public Health—we were going into it completely blind,” Alyssa explains. “Honors has prepared me to ‘go for it,’ then learn how to adapt.”
To anyone interested in pursuing internships or opportunities to do research in their field of study, Alyssa advises “taking the risk, even if you don’t meet every single qualification.” Internships can show you what kinds of work you might want to do, but also what you don’t foresee yourself doing later in life. “Just having that hands-on experience is so helpful to go along with the classroom learning.”
Thanks go to Ashley Rice and Alyssa Devlin for paving the way for future students to participate in this eye-opening internship opportunity, and for their words of wisdom and encouragement in pursuing these experiences. More information about Ashley and Alyssa's experience can be found here on the School of Public Health & Health Sciences website.