Physics alumna examines science education in Africa, China, U.S.

Anne Emerson Leak '08 considers whether girls' persistence or attrition in the sciences is cultural and focuses on the role of science in solving health problems and constraints in developing communities.

Leak with students in Cameroon

From Gettysburg to Cameroon to Kenya, Anne Emerson Leak ’08 has been deeply involved with science education and its benefits.

Leak, a physics major, found her passion as a student by volunteering for the LEGO Robotics program, which empowers middle school girls to get involved with science by building robots in the physics department.

“[Because of that volunteer work], I was really interested in researching issues of access to science education for girls,” she said.

Leak in AfricaIt was Maureen Forrestal in the Provost’s Office, along with her physics professors, who encouraged Leak to apply for a Fulbright scholarship, which she was offered and accepted in Cameroon.

“One of the guiding questions of my Fulbright study was whether girls' persistence or attrition in science was cultural and if similar trends could be found in another country,” said Leak.

She spent months in the West African country, observing classrooms and interviewing students about their experiences, interest, and confidence in science.

“In Cameroon, I spent many hours back in elementary and junior high school science and math classes. When I walked in the door on the first day of school, I was one of over 120 eighth graders sitting at desks, on top of tables, on the floor, and leaning in through the window to learn physics. Often, there were not enough teachers to go around and one student stood at the board reviewing lessons with their classmates. The students were always excited to learn. I had entered a whole new world and was excited to observe learning taking place,” she said.

Leak said what surprised her most about the junior high students is that they really enjoyed science and were confident in their abilities, but did not think they could pursue the math/science track in high school, which would allow them to pursue further studies in those subjects.

She said the girls she talked with were concerned that they would not be good enough in math to pursue science even though they enjoyed science. In the U.S., there has been similar research showing that math, especially algebra, is a gate keeper to science though it is often less explicit than in Cameroon since students do not typically specialize in math or science until college.

“My time in Cameroon was amazing. Not only did I learn how much I enjoy doing research in education, but I learned to really appreciate a new culture and met some wonderful people,” she said.

Anne Emerson LeakNow, Leak is working on her Ph.D. in science education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation focuses on the role of science in solving health problems and constraints in developing communities. She continues to analyze the data from her time in Cameroon related to students’ confidence and interest in math and science in junior high school right before they enter the subject tracks, among other things.

Leak recently spent a year in small village in Kenya working closely with teachers and community leaders to design and implement an after-school science club. In the club, students learned the practices of science, participated in inquiry activities, and designed projects to address health problems in their community.

“I did not expect my time in Cameroon to have such an influence on my own research interests in international science education,” Leak said. She has spent time researching in China, as well as Africa.

In addition to her research abroad, Leak participates in projects in California looking at elementary students' use of new technology in the classroom and their conceptual development in computer science, among other projects.

In the end, Leak recognizes that it was her own science education – especially the one she got within the liberal arts context at Gettysburg – along with physics professors and mentors who are “like family” that got her where she is today.

“Everywhere I travel, I realize the value of good education. My education at Gettysburg went far beyond learning facts and equations; it helped me become passionate about learning and using what I have learned to solve problems and help others. I am still a student and will continue learning even when I finish graduate school, but I know that I will find new opportunities to continue making the most of my education at Gettysburg,” she said.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition that includes Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate and other distinguished scholars among its alumni. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Nikki Rhoads, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Wed, 9 Jul 2014

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