2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
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Professor Angela Calabrese-Barton Teaches Science to the Homeless

One recent summer, Angela Calabrese-Barton's landlord decided to sell the house in which she and her husband were living. Most people would try to find another place to live. Calabrese-Barton, Assistant Professor of Science Education, and her husband decided it would be a good opportunity to do some research on what it is like to be homeless.

It was this experience of being temporarily homeless that led Angela Calabrese-Barton to seriously think about the situations and concerns of homeless children and their families. "What does it mean for children who are homeless to have to go to school and learn something beyond their immediate survival," she contemplated.

Homeless children make up twenty-five percent of the homeless population in the United States, and many are from single-parent families from the inner-cities. Openly referred to as "shelter rats," homeless children and their families, who move frequently from place to place, who have no privacy or space of their own, and who have lost their own clothes or possessions, tend to feel they do not belong. These children feel inferior to other children whose families have a home and a better income.

While she and her husband were homeless, "there was such a sense of helplessness-a disconnection from society," Calabrese-Barton noted. "We didn't want to tell people what we were doing."

Educating Homeless Children

"Since August 1995, I have had an after-school science program for homeless children and their families," Professor Calabrese-Barton said. "I use the setting to provide an opportunity for children in a homeless shelter to play with science and use it productively in their lives." The program, funded by the Spencer Foundation, considers three questions: How do homeless children construct their identities in science? How can science be used as a productive force in their lives and be created out of their experiences? And, what do teachers need to know to teach children in extreme poverty?

The logistics of being homeless, of moving frequently, not having money for basic needs and for daycare, not having a permanent address or immunization records, makes regular school attendance difficult for these children. When they do attend school, children often change schools several times throughout the year. Often they have to repeat grades and are likely to score below grade level in reading and math.

"In a shelter, you have very limited space and time to do homework," Calabrese-Barton noted. "If a class is doing a unit on photography and the kids are asked to bring in a shoebox, it is a big issue for someone who doesn't have little things like paper and pencils."

As a homeless person, Professor Calabrese-Barton says she felt passive, without any space or political power. "I wanted to use science as an agency to empower them," she explained. "I wanted to help people who teach science to understand the connection between the larger social context of living in poverty and just surviving in school."

As urban homeless children learn science, she says, they also learn a lot about who they are and what science is. Teachers need to think about how children perceive themselves and the choices they make based on those perceptions, and they need to think about how children perceive science and what they believe they can do or want to do with science.

"Science can be fun, but it has an integral role in our society," Calabrese-Barton noted. "I want to help these children use science in a way to make their lives better."

Experiments Based on Experiences

Professor Calabrese-Barton calls the after-school science program "science time." She uses this time to discover the pressing concerns the children have and discuss how science could help them gain power in these areas of their lives.

One long-term study they did concerned pollution and the local community. "The kids hate living at the shelter because of the social stigma and its closeness to a crack house," Calabrese-Barton said. "They never talked to me about the fact that they could learn something about their neighborhood and take that knowledge and make changes."

The project began with the children listing complaints about where they lived and the feelings they associated with those problems. They decided to gather more data from other people in the neighborhood.

"They took a video camera and interviewed people in the area and asked what they thought about the neighborhood," Calabrese-Barton explained. "They studied the quality of the water in their building and the ground pollution in a one-block area and devised a plan to clean up that block and put plants in the area. They took experiences they felt bad about and used science to transform them and to help them act on them."

Food was another concern the children had. Since the amount and frequency of food they could have in the shelter was limited, Professor Calabrese-Barton took the opportunity to have them do food experiments-making experimental pizza, jelly, fried rice and birthday cakes. As the children were learning, they were also reaping the benefits of having an extra meal.

An important benefit the children receive from science time is the consistency with which Professor Calabrese-Barton returns to the shelter to work with them. "One of the most psychologically devastating aspects of being homeless as a child is the uncertainty and instability," Calabrese-Barton explained. "When I came back the following week, one of the young boys jumped up, started running around in circles, and screamed to us and his brother, ‘I knew they would come! I knew you'd come back! I told you!'"

Keeping It Going

The experiences she's had working with homeless children have given Professor Calabrese-Barton the motivation to expand her efforts. "I hope to find out more about how homeless children construct identity in science and how science can be productive in their lives so I can work with pre-service teachers to use it in their classrooms," she said.

"I want to build up a strand around urban science in the science education program. I want to link my research in the shelters with our pre-service and in-service programs and create spaces for students from TC to go to the shelters and work with children."

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