When you step through the doors of the Tennessee Governor’s Academy for Mathematics and Science in Knoxville, it’s clear you’ve entered a radically different kind of school. The walls are covered in posters singing the praises of science and scientists, and the mood during a calculus class is upbeat–to put it mildly. TGA’s lead teacher, Dr. Terri Hopkins (’87, ’01, ’04 Knoxville), works the room more like a politician than a high-school math teacher, fielding questions and answers from 22 of the smartest high-school juniors you will ever see.
“Can we put our name in Chinese on the homework?” asks one student. (Hopkins deftly declined the request.) It’s not that these students already know it all, it’s just that they all seem entirely comfortable with giving it a try.
That environment–where students’ enthusiasm to learn is matched only by their teachers’ desire to challenge them to learn even more–is at the core of Governor Phil Bredesen’s vision for a residential school that the University of Tennessee brought into being in just a few short months.
“It was just last January that we announced the school,” Bredesen said when he visited last August to dedicate the school. “To be here today and meet the students reminds me of the amazing things we can accomplish when we put our minds to it.”
Bredesen’s visit to TGA reflected his personal passion for giving talented high-schoolers the opportunity to pursue a tuition-free 2-year advanced course of study, as well as the chance to conduct hands-on research alongside top scientists. He pointed to his own experience in a summer scientific academy during his high-school years that eventually led him to pursue and earn a degree in physics from Harvard University.
It is that desire to live “the scientific life,” as TGA’s executive director Dr. Vena Long often calls it, that drives the work of the academy’s staff.
“As we thought about how to build this academy from the ground up, we knew that we wanted to create an experience that would really give students a taste of what life is like for researchers,” said Long, who is also the associate dean for research in UT Knoxville’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. “This has to be a singular opportunity.”
The inaugural class of students was selected from a pool of 174 applicants from across the state, and they represent the breadth of the state both geographically and culturally. In spite of their diverse backgrounds, however, the students share a common bond in their love for science.
That’s evident in talking to the president and vice-president of the TGA student body–Su Ji Jeong from Martin and Ben Owens from Germantown. Jeong envisions a career as a biomedical engineer, and Owens says that while he’s always wanted to be a surgeon, his choice of what kind of surgeon to be “kind of changes every week.” (This week’s choice is neurosurgery.)
Both students pointed to the opportunities they and their classmates had after a few short weeks at TGA to be involved with real-world research as a major change from their home high schools.
Each Wednesday TGA students travel to Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the key partners in the academy’s development. While at the lab, they spend time working one-on-one with a researcher on a real scientific issue. Students also have taken field trips to the Great Smoky Mountains to study salamanders and examine how physics affects water flow, as well as to the ancient fossil site in Gray, Tennessee, to help in the archaeological dig taking place there.
“To be able to do all that,” said Owens, “is something no one could ever bring to a normal school.”
“This forms the basis of the research we’ll do in the future,” Jeong added.
Indeed, the proximity to researchers at UT Knoxville and ORNL is what led to the school’s being located in Knoxville. Students live and learn in two cottages on the campus of the Tennessee School for the Deaf on the banks of the Tennessee River in South Knoxville, an experience that has paid dividends through interactions with TSD’s students. TGA students are helping tutor TSD students in science and math, while TSD students are helping TGA students learn American Sign Language.
In developing the academy’s curriculum, the TGA faculty sought out opportunities to make students’ learning experience seamless, with each class and each subject a natural extension of the previous one. They split the academic year into multiweek modules.
Each module is built around a fundamental question, for example, What can you learn from a bone? Over the course of the module, each class will examine the question from a different perspective. In a physics class, students might address how an understanding of physics aids forensic science, while in calculus class they would look at applying math to the data collected from bones. At the same time, their humanities class might spend time looking at the role of archaeology in U.S. history and literature.
“We want students to immerse themselves in these questions, in class, on field trips, and in their work with researchers,” said Long. “As they do, they’ll acquire the fundamental knowledge in a way that will be more meaningful and, we hope, more useful to them.”
For students used to ranking at the top of their class, the adjustment to being surrounded by others who are just as intelligent has been both a joy and a challenge. The support of the faculty has been crucial, according to Jeong.
“Inside the classes, they are our teachers, but outside class they are like moms and dads. They want us to succeed,” she said.
Each member of the teaching staff holds an advanced degree, and all have experience teaching high-school students. Even members of the academy’s residence hall staff, who live in the cottages with the students to provide programming and support after hours when the faculty isn’t on campus, hold degrees in science.
There’s also a sense of camaraderie among the students that reflects their often-quirky natures. They’ve united behind pi, the “magical number” of mathematics, to the point that for Bredesen’s visit they specially arranged the tables into the shape of the Greek letter Ï€ (pi). They’ve also adopted nicknames for one another that can seem a little unusual–just ask Andrea “George” Castillo, a student from the West Tennessee town of Savannah. The camaraderie pays off, though, as students frequently tackle group projects that demand teamwork and collaboration.
Students and staff alike recognize that they are in the midst of an experiment that can affect the future of education in Tennessee. Each summer, the academy will offer teachers from around the state an opportunity to visit and learn about new approaches to science and math instruction based on TGA’s successes.
“Ideally, we want TGA to be a laboratory to improve science and math education in Tennessee,” said Long. “It’s about these exceptional students, but there are larger implications, as well.”
Implications Bredesen made clear during his visit to the academy: “Science and technology are key to a huge part of the economy. I’d like to make Tennessee a leader in these fields, and I hope that this school will make that happen. You’re doing something different. You’re a part of history, and I hope you will look back on this with pride.”
Alumni Staff the Academy
UT’s stamp on the Tennessee Governor’s Academy is evident in the educational background of its staff. A majority of TGA staff members–administrators, teachers, and residence life staff–are UT Knoxville alumni. Several are also pursuing additional degrees:
Bennett Adkinson, instructor of physics, B.S. ’04 in College Scholars and M.S. ’05 in science education
Jon Bethard, residence hall director, B.A. ’02, M.A. ’05, and Ph.D. in anthropology expected ’08
Denise Harvey, program administrator, M.S.S.W. ’89 and Ph.D. ’99 in education
Thomas Hodges, instructor of mathematics, M.S. ’05 in teacher education and Ph.D. in education expected ’08
Terri Hopkins, lead teacher, B.S. ’87, M.S. ’01, and Ph.D. ’04 in education
Kristi Nelms, director of residence life, M.S. ’94 in college student personnel and Ed.D. ’05 in educational administration and policy studies
Erika Soderstrom, assistant hall director, B.A. ’07 and M.A. in computer science expected ’09
Yan Wang, instructor of mathematics and Mandarin, M.S. ’06 in math education