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Adrian Walker

A gateway to science

Egleston Square isn’t known as a magnet for astrophysicists, yet Mike Barnett spends a lot of time there.

Strictly speaking, Barnett isn’t an astrophysicist anymore. Instead, he is a celebrated professor at Boston College who has devoted himself to helping to teach science-phobic kids — especially from city neighborhoods — to appreciate the wonders of science.

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One of the ways he does this is through teaching students to grow fruits and vegetables in high-tech hydroponic gardens and sell them to their neighbors at farmers’ markets. It is this pursuit that takes him, as it did Saturday morning, to Jamaica Plain.

“When you grow food, you learn a little about physics, a little about chemistry, and a little about biology,” he said last week. “It’s all about helping kids get excited about science.”

Barnett is an education professor at BC, specializing in urban science education. His mission is to use science to stimulate students, who might fall by the wayside, to become excited about school. The farmers’ market is part of a larger effort to teach kids how science can touch their daily lives.

So they pore over data showing the location of convenience stores as opposed to supermarkets. They perform experiments to discover what kinds of plants they can grow in labs, without natural sunlight or soil. They ponder why low-income people have less access to nutritious food.

And then they try to address the problem, by growing healthy food and selling it for a minimal profit. “Science is such a gateway discipline,” Barnett said. “It really opens up a wide range of opportunities, once you begin to understand it. Access to healthy food is a social justice problem.”

The students in his College Bound program are mainly from Brighton High and West Roxbury High. They aren’t the students normally plucked for college-prep programs. “We recruit not the A kids but the C kids,” he said. “The A kids get plenty of attention, but it’s easy for a C student to skate through and be forgotten. We try to get C students to get excited and become A students, and we’ve been fairly successful at it.”

Barnett came upon his passion almost by accident. He was a graduate student at Indiana University when the physics department fielded a call from a frustrated fifth-grade schoolteacher who wondered if someone could help her explain the moon to her students. She was referred to Barnett, who ended up in her classroom, talking about astronomy to a roomful of curious kids. To his surprise, he loved it.

“What I learned quickly was that fifth-graders can do the same science as high school kids,” he said. “You just have to break it down into appropriate pieces so they can understand it. But they're really, really inquisitive.”

Instead of becoming a researcher, Barnett became an expert on teaching science. His program combines teaching science to students with working with teachers from across Eastern Massachusetts on better ways to teach science and technology.

Barnett, who’s 41, grew up on a farm in Kentucky, where his parents grew tobacco and raised cattle. His early love of science fiction hardened into a passion for physics partly because of an inspiring high school teacher. He was the first member of his family to go to college, which may partly explain his affinity for helping to encourage students from similar backgrounds.

“I never missed the farm,” he said. “But here I am growing things.”

Last week, Barnett was recognized as Massachusetts professor of the year by the Carnegie Foundation, but he deflected the praise he has received.

“I’m not a huge fan of awards,” he said. “It’s more a reflection of the fact that we have a strong and dedicated team that works on these projects.”

Teaching science is less important than stimulating curiosity, he said. “We’re really trying to get kids in college and keep them there,” Barnett said. “We show them how to use science to address social justice issues. Our kids are living those issues.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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