Jim Dandy brings science to the rescue

In the eyes of society, the 14- to 17-year-old youth James R. Dandy works with are delinquents. But in the eyes of this science teacher, they are “mostly bright but just a little sidetracked.”

But thanks to his experience assisting a Penn professor with research, Dandy is putting his students back on track.

Dandy works at the Youth Study Center Detention School, a school that aims at reintroducing into mainstream society minors who have served time for past crimes. Over the years, he has strived to make science more interesting and appealing for his students.

He got one such opportunity this year with Adrian R. Morrison, professor of behavioral neuroscience, anatomy and animal biology in Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dandy has been participating in a summer research fellowship program of the American Physiological Society, called Frontiers in Physiology. The program shows teachers how to do research and in turn pass on those skills to their students.

Dandy is assisting Morrison with research on insomnia and other sleep-related disorders. They are experimenting with a chemical known as Carbacol and its effects on sleep patterns. They hope to eventually use these findings to design a drug to aid people with narcolepsy and somnambulism.

Dandy is incorporating into his Youth Study Center classes what he has learned with Morrison.

He urges his students to develop their own hypotheses and methodologies, thereby shifting the emphasis from the teacher as the “dispenser of knowledge” to the “facilitator” of students’ drive for exploration and discovery.

Evidently he has made progress. When first asked to reproduce their notion of a scientist, Dandy’s students drew a “stereotypical Caucasian bald man wearing a lab coat and horn-rimmed glasses.” Today Dandy hopes that his students see themselves as scientists. After all, they have graduated to expressing interest in topics ranging from knee-jerks, dreaming and smoking to even testing the acidity levels of tomatoes. They have also conducted experiments in which they observed how air pressure is equalized between two chambers.

“My aim is to develop inquiry-based learning in my classroom rather than a cookbook type of instruction,” Dandy said.

In March, Dandy will present his findings at the Physiological Society’s conference in New Orleans.

Ultimately, he hopes that the center’s curriculum will require students to give presentations in their senior year explaining what they learned.

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Originally published on October 11, 2001