On a Wednesday morning in early January, Robert H. Gifford, M.D., HS ’67, took nine of his eighth-grade students out onto New Haven’s Columbus Avenue for an experiment. Braving a wind chill of 4 degrees, they measured the length of the block in front of Sacred Heart/St. Peter School and prepared to calculate the speed of passing cars. The parochial school is the last of several serving the Hill neighborhood, which borders the medical school campus to the south and west, and Gifford, the former deputy dean of education at Yale, is the school’s new science teacher. In fact, he is its only full-time science teacher.
The hours are long, the work is challenging and the pay is modest. (Gifford, who volunteered his services during his first semester at the school, now receives a small salary.) But it fulfills the goal he set several years before his retirement in 1999 [“Goodbye, Dr. Gifford,” Fall 1999|Winter 2000] of teaching science to children in New Haven’s inner city. The lack of a required state teaching certificate thwarted Gifford’s original plan to teach in city public schools. But his name came to the attention of Geraldine Giaimo, M.S., the principal of Sacred Heart/St. Peter, who was looking for a way to offer students more science than the classroom teachers could incorporate into their lessons.
Although Sacred Heart/St. Peter is a parochial school, only about 30 percent of its students are Roman Catholic. Of the 224 students enrolled, 96 percent are African-American or Latino and 62 percent meet federal guidelines for free or reduced-rate breakfasts and lunches at the school. “We were actually in tears when [Gifford] said he would come here,” said Giaimo, herself an alumna of Sacred Heart, which merged with St. Peter School in 1994. “He’s not just the science teacher. He’s the science department.”
Both Gifford and his students, who are in grades four through eight, have made some adjustments. For Gifford, Giaimo said, “It’s very challenging dealing with young people.” And for the students? “The work is hard,” she said. “He expects a lot from them.”
Gifford’s main teaching tool is a multimedia computer that allows him to project Web pages onto a screen. His curriculum, which he wrote last summer, is based on national standards for science education and has no textbook. “This way I can go in any direction I really want to,” he said. The direction usually involves an experiment, because he wants the students to learn by doing and thinking. The program’s objective, he wrote in his curriculum, is for students to develop an enthusiasm for the natural world and an appreciation of scientific thought. With donated funds, he bought science kits that allow the students to carry out the experiments that underpin his teaching.
Which explains why Gifford and nine students were freezing outside the school, armed with notepads, stopwatches and a tape measure. Their hypothesis was that few drivers passing the school adhered to the posted 25-mile-per-hour speed limit. The students further hypothesized that men were more likely to disregard the limit than women.
Before leaving the warmth of the classroom, Gifford reviewed the required math, leading them through the calculations necessary to translate feet per second into miles per hour. “Tomorrow,” said Gifford, “we’re going to construct a graph that will allow us to know, so we don’t have to calculate it all the time.” After measuring the speed of three cars, Gifford and the students gave in to the cold and went inside, vowing to return another day to collect more data. “No one’s going the speed limit, that’s for sure,” Gifford said, noting that a much larger sample was needed for the study. “We need a lot of cars. We need well over 100 cars.”
At a school science fair in February, the students presented their results. They surveyed 206 cars and found that 81 percent exceeded the speed limit, that 85 percent of female drivers and 79 percent of male drivers exceeded the limit, that all westbound cars and 91 percent of eastbound drivers were speeding and that the average speed was 35 miles per hour.
At Sacred Heart/St. Peter, his last class is over by 12:35 p.m., but Gifford often spends afternoons at the school. He arranges for after-school tutoring for students who need it. He recently offered his fellow teachers in-service training on classroom applications of the Internet. And he’s working with K–3 teachers to develop a science curriculum they can use in the classroom. “I felt I could bring something to the school they didn’t have,” Gifford said, explaining his decision to volunteer as a teacher. “It was an opportunity.” Giaimo couldn’t agree more. “He is laying a foundation,” she said, “in a way that I don’t think anyone else could.”