Sumner ’08 on Teaching Teens – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Sumner ’08 on Teaching Teens

Rachel Sumner ’08 wrote an article for “Human Development Today,” the e-newsletter of Cornell University College of Human Ecology Human Development Outreach and Extension, where she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Development. Titled “Teaching scientific inquiry to teens,” Sumner’s article described her experience teaching a “Thinking Like a Scientist” course to teens as part of a workshop on the topic.

“Watching them struggle through defining a term or refining each other’s ideas for future research reminded me of my own introduction to science in college. ‘Thinking like a scientist’ has since become the way I think about pretty much everything and has set me on the trajectory that led me here, one year into a PhD program in Human Development,” she said.

Sumner earned her B.A. in psychology magna cum laude and with Honors from William Smith. She minored in public policy studies. While a student, she was a member of the Laurel Society and a Bonner Leader for Literacy at HWS. Sumner helped found the Colleges’ First Book advisory board, which donated thousands of books to local organizations including America Reads, Jump Start, Head Start, the 21st Century Program, and Neighbors Night at St. Peter’s Church. Originally from Heath, Mass., she was co-organizer of the 2006 Day of Service and was named Student Leader of the Month for September 2007. She was inducted into Hai Timiai.

Her full article follows.


Human Development Today e-news
Teaching scientific inquiry to teens

Rachel Sumner • July 25, 2011

“Maybe there are just too many of us trying to send messages with our minds at the same time,” suggested one student after our group’s third unsuccessful attempt to demonstrate the existence of Extrasensory perception (ESP). “That’s a great hypothesis,” I remarked, “How could we test that?”

This foray into the paranormal was part of a workshop on Thinking Like a Scientist, offered at the 4-H Career Explorations Conference. Thinking Like a Scientist, developed by Wendy M. Williams, professor in the department of human development, is an extension education program designed to help kids explore the science behind topics that interest them, such as ESP, lying, and self-esteem. Students are encouraged to develop hypotheses, seek out facts instead of opinions, consider previous research, and think about how science and scientific findings are related to real-world situations. So many science courses focus on content. The focus of this program is the process of scientific inquiry itself.

During one lesson about the science of smiling, students investigated this everyday behavior from a scientific perspective. With a level of creativity and curiosity that I’d come to expect from them after our two days in the classroom, they brainstormed potential support for a number of hypotheses about gender differences in smiling. Their suggestions ranged from “Girls have more to worry about and guys don’t really take things seriously,” to “Girls get to sleep in more and…they watch more soap operas, no offense.” Students were drawing on their own experience of the world and thinking about how or why their experience might be similar to or different from a broader pattern of experience that might be revealed by science and research.

Teaching the Thinking Like a Scientist course was a wonderful chance for me to share my enthusiasm for the rigors of research with these young students. Watching them struggle through defining a term or refining each other’s ideas for future research reminded me of my own introduction to science in college. “Thinking like a scientist” has since become the way I think about pretty much everything and has set me on the trajectory that led me here, one year into a PhD program in Human Development. My advisors, Wendy M. Williams, Stephen Ceci, and Steven Hamilton, continue to nourish and broaden my enthusiasm for exploring the world and solving problems by using research and scientific process.

Rachel Sumner is pursuing her PhD in Human Development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University. She is interested in conducting research on gender and racial achievement gaps in education and ways in which those disparities can be eliminated.