The Science Education Partnership program pairs science teachers with scientists. Here Stephanie Battle of the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington guides teacher Michael Hougan of Snohomish (Washington) High School as he prepares a cell culture. (Caren Brinkema/FHCRC)
Some teachers are partnering with scientists to create authentic research experiences to build student interest in science and increase their own content knowledge. While some of these partnerships arise informally, initiatives like BioEYES, the Waksman Student Scholars Program (WSSP), and the Science Education Partnership (SEP) at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, help match scientists and teachers while providing professional development (PD) and more.
“The goal is for [teachers] to do real science in their classroom and [be] a major part of the BioEYES experience. We are not guests, but collaborators in the classroom,” explains Jamie Shuda, EdD, director of Life Science Outreach and co-principal investigator of BioEYES at the University of Pennsylvania. BioEYES staff members bring zebrafish to participating classrooms, where students study first adults, then embryos over the course of a week. The program originated in Philadelphia middle schools and grew to include more grades as teachers moved between grade levels, but “wanted to keep the BioEYES program in their curriculum,” says Shuda. BioEYES units now range from one created by a second-grade teacher to ones used in Advanced Placement high school courses. While BioEYES provides the tanks, fish, and a co-teacher, “schools just have to provide electrical outlets, and teachers have to attend [PD sessions],” says Shuda. The program’s 80 model teachers, who have participated for multiple years, receive supplies and the fish to conduct the hands-on lab, but no co-teacher. “Teachers master the microscope work and data analysis with their students. Teachers can then select what they do based on their students’ needs and abilities. It makes the partnership stronger; [the teachers are] very active in doing BioEYES throughout the week.”
Scott Knoflicek, a science teacher at the General George A. McCall School in Philadelphia, implemented BioEYES during his first year of teaching, based on his predecessor’s recommendation. “She was involved with the BioEYES program for many years and adamantly insisted that I continue working with [BioEYES] on the project. I used the program as a unit to build on. Over my five years of teaching, I have used the BioEYES project as an example for inquiry-based learning that has guided my development of other projects and curriculum designs...
“My initial PD for the program was very useful and helped my understanding of the importance of zebrafish as model organisms and their use in research,” he continues. “It was crucial to see someone else teach the unit first before teaching the unit myself. By being able to see and hear a trained educator who has taught the unit to many other groups of students prior to mine, I was able to refine the best way for me to teach the concepts.”
“The main thing about what we’re trying to do is [to create a] partnership,” says Nancy Hutchison, PhD, SEP’s director (http://www.fhcrc.org/en/education-training/sep.html). “We wanted to really build relationships that would last over a long time with teachers. We recognized teachers don’t always have access to resources, and scientists don’t always communicate well. We can do better. People need science in everyday life, [such as when they are] making decisions in the doctor’s office,” she maintains.
With approximately 25 educators in each cohort since 1991, Hutchison estimates more than 300,000 kids—most in high school—have been taught by SEP teachers. Over the years, SEP has expanded to include mentor scientists at academic institutions such as the University of Washington and at both nonprofit and for-profit corporations, as well as those working at the center.
During a “boot camp” session, SEP participants learn about the techniques, terminology, and equipment mentor scientists are using before working in the labs for five days. The remainder of the two-and-a-half-week program is spent with program staff shaping individual projects. “There’s a poster session on the last day. They show who they are, their mentor, what they worked on, and what they’re taking back to the classroom,” Hutchison says. In September, SEP teachers from any cohort are invited to join a “family reunion” of sorts, where they can register to receive kits from SEP’s lending program as well as surplus lab supplies.
The WSSP started in 1993 as a partnership among high school students, teachers, and faculty at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. Teachers bring one or two students to a summer institute, then use what they have learned to conduct actual DNA analysis during the academic year, according to Andrew Vershon, PhD, WSSP program director. That research has the potential to be published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the U.S. repository of DNA sequences.
“When I started the WSSP, I had been a seasoned biology teacher, but admittedly was weak in molecular biology, a relatively ‘new’ lesson for an ‘old’ teacher,” recalls Holly Levin, a science teacher at Bayonne High School in Bayonne, New Jersey, for 27 years. “I can tell you that the summer institute not only caught me up with what I felt I was missing, but strengthened my knowledge base more than I ever could on my own.”
“It is very, very valuable to have students…[there] during summer as well. It establishes a community of practice,” Vershon explains. “Students end up being a very valuable resource. Teachers rely on the summer students to assist with the project during the academic year.” In addition, students can be involved for multiple years. “The research project…[is] complex using actual DNA analysis…There is a wet lab component and a computational aspect. Any student with a computer can sit down and do [the computational side of the] project.”
“The WSSP has offered [my students] not only an opportunity to learn how professional scientific research is done, but [also] to actually conduct it—facing the challenges, tackling the problems, and celebrating the successes,” contends Levin. “It has fostered [in] them a sense of independence, encouraged personal growth and camaraderie, and sharpened presentation and organizational skills... A true test of what my students have learned will come through their development and presentation of a poster depicting their research and results, which they will present to invited guests at our school in May.”
Teachers use WSSP projects in both clubs and classes, notes Sue Coletta, WSSP senior science education specialist. “This year, we have some schools with six to seven students; those are probably a club activity. Other schools have 60 to 70 students; those are probably in class[room] settings...Many teachers incorporate [WSSP] into [Advanced Placement Biology] classes as well.”
Schools provide space, storage, and teacher time, and WSSP offers instruction through the summer institute, as well as a “biology equipment lending library”created with support from the Toshiba Foundation. WSSP is supported by GE Healthcare Life Sciences and the National Science Foundation and works closely with the New Jersey Science Teachers Association, Johns Hopkins University, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
One thing we’re trying to do is interest more and more schools in bioinformatics analysis,” which only requires computer access, says Vershon. “We can provide sequences, and they can do analysis…[Students] equate science with moving liquid, but bioinformatics is real science. If we get more students to do bioinformatics, we could reach larger numbers of students.”