Samantha B. Bonar

The national Phi Beta Kappa Society has recognized Occidental’s TOPS science education outreach program with a $5,000 cash prize, given to just four honorees in Los Angeles for their successful efforts to engage broader audiences with the arts, humanities, social sciences, natural sciences or mathematics.

According to the award citation, the selection committee chose Occidental’s program "because it is deeply impressed with your efforts to provide over 7,000 Los Angeles students each year with student-centered laboratory learning experiences that foster scientific inquiry and curiosity."

TOPS "has produced well-documented, conclusive results showing substantial increases in student conceptual understanding and statistically significant increase in their interest in science classes and science in general," the citation continues. "Moreover, in the spirit of this award, we appreciate that over 40% of your students are underrepresented minorities and nearly 50% are female."

Occidental’s TOPS program, for Teachers + Occidental = Partnership in Science, is a science-education outreach program for local middle and high schools. It uses a large delivery van to transport sufficient equipment and supplies to the classroom, allowing science teachers to give their students the kind of lab experiences they wouldn't otherwise receive.

Founded by Occidental chemistry professor Chris Craney and several former colleagues, the program is a 25-year-long collaboration between Los Angeles-area teachers and Occidental faculty and staff based on partnerships with 20 schools and 60 teachers. TOPS supports more than 20 high-level lab-based activities for students in all levels of science courses, serving many underrepresented minority students. The program provides students and teachers with on-site access to classroom-scale laboratory kits and equipment in biology, chemistry, physics and middle school science.

The program seeks to improve local schools’ science instruction on key topics through hands-on laboratories employing modern instruments; improve students’ conceptual understanding of key science topics and practice; and encourage the development of future scientists and science teachers. TOPS activities are aligned with the California state science standards, Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core, and many also align with Advanced Placement curriculum.

Assessments of student knowledge before and after their participation in TOPS show significant and generally substantial increases in their conceptual understanding of major topics aligned with the laboratory experience. Students who participate in the TOPS program also show a statistically significant increase in their interest in science classes and science in general.

The Phi Beta Kappa cash prize will be awarded at a ceremony in Los Angeles on October 17. Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is America’s most prestigious academic honor society. Occidental’s chapter, established in 1926, is one of just 286 Phi Beta Kappa chapters at leading U.S. colleges and universities.