Science is war and the kids are winning in Saginaw, Michigan

Jun 26, 2014

The buzzer comes out. The kids get amped. For Jan Jeske's kids at Ruben Daniels Middle School in Saginaw, a war is about to break out, and she's totally fine with it. 

Jan runs the science bowl at this school where 95% of kids are on free and reduced-price lunch. Three years ago, she started a team with three girls. Now, she has six full teams competing on everything from the history of science to complex physics. And when it's time to practice, things get fierce.

Middle School students from Saginaw learn about velocity using balloons at a Saginaw Valley State University-sponsored math camp.
Middle School students from Saginaw learn about velocity using balloons at a Saginaw Valley State University-sponsored math camp.
Credit Shauntel Manning / Daniels Middle School

"It's like a bloodbath in my room," she says with pride. "They just go for it." 

In a school district with massive debt, with many students living in poverty, educators like Jan Jeske and math coach Shauntel Manning see math and science as tickets to something better, if not outright success. 

"There is life after this, and you can get there with a little hard work," says Manning. 

In Manning's program, the lowest-performing kids go through a math boot camp during the summer. It's not summer school, Manning says. It's games, skills drills, exploring numbers and for many, time spent in college. 

Manning's kids go to Saginaw Valley State University for part of their boot camp. They have a little more freedom, she says. They learn in a new environment. They have college kids mentoring them. And it's making the difference. 

In her last batch, when the middle schoolers got back in the fall and took MEAP prep tests, 85% showed improvement. These kids were failing math, she says. Now, they aren't. 

"With the Saginaw Valley camp, they saw math in a different way," Manning says. "It wasn't just the usual you come to school for five or six hours and you go home." 

Jeske's effort is funded mostly by the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. Manning's effort, mostly by SVSU. The university just received a $5 million grant from the Dow foundation to help local schools develop their math and science programs, and is right in the middle of a teacher training boot camp for science and math educators. 

When classrooms fill in the fall, students all over the Great Lakes Bay region, which includes Saginaw, will have new science projects to move their imaginations. Their teachers will have support. And perhaps the classroom wars that Jeske oversees will be won. By everyone.