Science Education Partnerships: Building Communities Where Everybody Learns

Gather information; formulate questions; seek answers; repeat as necessary.

As scientists, we are perpetually involved in this process of life-long learning. But other professions require continuing education to keep up with the latest and greatest in techniques and discoveries. In our work at the Science Education Partnership (SEP) at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC), our goal is to provide professional development opportunities for high school science teachers. In working to meet this goal we have come to recognize that our program also helps FHCRC scientists hone their teaching skills by discussing their science with teachers and their students.

SEP: Bringing Together Scientists and Secondary School Teachers

Founded by a small group of teachers and center scientists in 1991, SEP has helped forge partnerships between research scientists and secondary science teachers in Washington state for over a decade. Approximately 25 teachers have joined the Howard Hughes Medical Institute- and FHCRC-funded SEP program each year, and since its inception, more than 240 teachers have participated. Remarkably, over 70% of all participants have remained active in the SEP professional learning community. Many continue to take advantage of the SEP kit loan program and professional development workshops. A smaller number of teachers join the SEP steering committee or serve as lead teachers in summer workshops.

SEP begins fostering partnerships between teachers and scientists the moment a teacher applies to the program. Teachers are selected for program participation by a sponsoring mentor-scientist, either from FHCRC or one of the SEP partner sites (ZymoGenetics, Amgen, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the University of Washington Department of Genome Sciences, and the UW Molecular and Cellular Biology Graduate Program). From the start, this partnering establishes teachers as part of the SEP community.

Teachers begin their SEP experience at the Opening Day Workshop. They come to the teaching lab at FHCRC and spend a day extracting DNA, micropipetting, and learning about gel electrophoresis. Then the teachers meet with their mentor-scientist and make plans for the coming summer.

The heart of SEP is the 2.5-week summer session. The teachers become students and learn from experienced SEP staff and lead teachers how to use DNA restriction enzymes, and how to perform bacterial transformations and column chromatography. The protocols and all necessary supplies and reagents are available to SEP teachers during the school year through the no-cost SEP kit loan program.

In this way the teachers gain the fundamental skills needed to participate in their mentor's research project. During the summer training sessions, SEP teachers spend 5 days in their mentor-scientist's lab. For many, this is their first experience in a research lab. Teachers get a taste of the scientific world, and the mentor-scientists often rediscover just how exciting that world is!

HutchLab Merges the Classroom With the Research Bench

HutchLab is a complementary SEP program that focuses on high school students. During the school year, teachers can bring up to 20 high school students to FHCRC to explore scientific concepts. FHCRC does not have an undergraduate campus, and HutchLab provides a rare teaching opportunity for research technicians, graduate students, and postdocs. HutchLab offers 1-day workshops on DNA and genetically modified organisms. Six-day summer immersion workshops are also available for high school students to follow a line of scientific inquiry in a lab setting, analyze data, discuss the ethics of scientific research, and present their findings to their peers and scientist-advisors.

Since being funded by a 3-year NIH Science Education Partnership Award in 1999, HutchLab has served more than 780 students in 1-day workshops and 120 students in the intensive summer session. We have received more than 200 qualified applications per year for our summer program. Often students who participate in our workshops are surprised that the experience offers more than learning from a book. One student reported that HutchLab was "incredibly interesting. The [summer session] week exceeded my expectations. I never thought we would actually get to do real labs and talk with real scientists. We really got to experience the life of a scientist." Often a connection to a scientist is cited as a student's number one salient memory of the day.

Like SEP, HutchLab has also offered memorable experiences to the FHCRC scientists that volunteer with us. Just as the SEP teachers learn about the techniques of biomedical research and then practice them in the lab, scientists, too, learn about strategies of teaching and then get to practice them in iterative cycles with several groups of students. One of us (Mary Vail) instructs HutchLab scientist-teachers in classroom experience and curriculum development. In turn, FHCRC scientists collaborate with high school teachers to develop curricula on topics that are timely and interesting. These teaching partnerships ensure that the curricula start with what students really need to know to understand the main concepts and include appropriate hands-on labs that demonstrate how the scientific process is used to investigate biological questions.

Experiencing Science Education

As SEP staff members, we have multiple roles as scientist, teacher, and learner. More often than not, our work requires us to simultaneously learn and teach.

For example, in designing workshops for HutchLab, we have incorporated ethics discussions into our curriculum. As a scientist who has never had extensive ethics training, the other of us (Wendy Law), an SEP postdoctoral fellow, attended ethics courses at the University of Washington and Georgetown University, as well as teacher professional development workshops on using ethics in the classroom offered by the Washington Association for Biomedical Research and by UW's High School Human Genome Project. We integrated these resources into our curriculum and made it relevant to the science that we are teaching. Teaching ethics and decision-making skills to HutchLab students takes practice, so we learn, we adjust, and we modify the curriculum almost every time we teach it. The effort is worthwhile, because students report that learning ethics and exercising decision-making skills is one of the most valuable parts of their HutchLab experience.

At the SEP, one day is never like the next, but one constant is communication. Whether it is helping a teacher to troubleshoot a kit in the classroom, helping a fellow scientist to find an age-appropriate science activity to do with an eighth-grade classroom, or telling funders why our programs are worth funding, writing and communication skills are key to our work.

Another cornerstone is networking. Especially in a new field like science education, there are no fixed stars by which to navigate. Meeting with people in science education is extremely important for generating ideas for opportunities, careers, and mentors. We have used this networking pathway to get to our respective positions at SEP.

We both got our introduction to the world of science education by being a mentor scientist for an SEP teacher. If you are interested in this field, volunteering with an outreach program near you is the best way to see if you like it. If there isn't a program at your institution, talk to people, both scientists and teachers, about starting one. Start small with a program to address some needs that you can help meet. Is it a family science night at the local middle school that needs volunteers, or a local science fair at the high school near you? Sharing your passion for science can be fun and rejuvenating. For a student, sometimes a simple interaction with a scientist is all it takes to change their attitude about science. Talk to people with interesting careers and career paths, not just in science education. Explore and widen your circle of contacts. Gather information. Formulate questions. Seek answers. Repeat as necessary.

Wendy Law is a Science Education postdoctoral fellow and Mary Vail is the SEP Program Manager and Teaching Scientist.

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