A Spoke in the Wheel: Precollege Science Education

This article is based on and inspired by a presentation Mel Limson made at the inaugural National Postdoc Association meeting, held on 15 March 2003. He spoke in a session shared by other postdocs describing innovative, exciting, and fulfilling postdoctoral programs. Another of the speakers, Arti Patel, also wrote an article for Next Wave on the postdoctoral program in the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Prevention.

At the inaugural National Postdoc Association meeting, Keith Yamamoto, vice dean for research at the University of California, San Francisco, suggested we consider redefining the mission of graduate education. He proposed a model in which a graduate study hub would give rise to several spokes--a variety of careers in science. My "spoke"? I have taken advantage of a unique postdoctoral fellowship opportunity that permits me to dive into the world of precollege science education.

During my graduate school years, my involvement with university-sponsored education and curriculum projects, community outreach programs, and teaching responsibilities sparked my interest in science education. Moreover, my graduate advisor, other faculty, academic administrators, and colleagues encouraged me to pursue my professional interests, fueling my enthusiasm and ambitions in science education. My current stint as a postdoctoral fellow at the Genetic Science Learning Center has fanned my initial spark of interest into a flame of newfound professional commitment, dedication, and passion for improving science literacy in our schools.

Research Ph.D.s Transitioning Into Science Education

Traditionally, research Ph.D.s interested in a career in science education sought positions at private secondary schools or small liberal arts colleges. However, throughout the last decade science education programs have begun to offer postdoctoral training fellowships. One effort was the National Science Foundation's Postdoctoral Fellowships in Science, Mathematics, Education and Technology Education (PFSMETE) program, offered from 1997 to 1999. The PFSMETE program awarded fellowships to prepare recent Ph.D.s in SMET subject areas to assume leadership roles in science education and to encourage them to develop expertise in science education research. The National Academies subsequently has affirmed Ph.D.s as a resource in science education with their reports, Attracting Science and Mathematics Ph.D.s to Secondary School Education (2000) and Attracting Ph.D.s to K-12 Education (2003).

In my case, funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Precollege Science Education Program Initiative for Biomedical Research Institutions and the Science Education Partnership Award from the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health enable the Genetic Science Learning Center to provide postdoctoral training for research scientists transitioning into science education careers.

The Genetic Science Learning Center Targets Precollege Education

The Learning Center is an established education and outreach program housed at the University of Utah's Eccles Institute of Human Genetics. The Learning Center's mission is to help people understand how genetics affects their lives and society. To this end we (1) partner with precollege science teachers to develop and produce innovative Internet-based curriculum supplement materials focused on genetics, biotechnology, and bioethics; (2) update and expand teachers' knowledge in these areas through professional development programs; and (3) engage precollege students in science enrichment experiences. Our team consists of two former research scientists (the co-directors), an education specialist (a former high school biology teacher), a scientific illustrator and animator, a computer professional, an undergraduate program assistant, and me, the postdoctoral fellow.

The curriculum supplements on the Learning Center's Web site are initially drafted by our Master Teachers during 1-week summer workshops. The teachers are on the classroom frontlines and have the best appreciation for what works most effectively with students. After an introduction to Internet-based curriculum design, training in a curriculum design framework, and discussions with scientists who work on a specific topic, our participating middle and high school teachers draft curriculum materials (both online and non-online). The Learning Center team continues to develop and refine the scientific content, student activities, and instructional strategies throughout the academic year. The Master Teachers pilot test the materials with their students, providing feedback for improvement. A project culminates in publishing an online module. We present the materials in instructional workshops at national and local science teacher conferences throughout the year.

The Learning Center partners with the Utah Museum of Natural History and the University of Utah School of Medicine to provide science enrichment programs for students. We also coordinate student tours through the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics that focus on genetic research and careers in science.

Transitioning Into a Science Education Career

My 2-year (2002-2004) postdoctoral fellowship in science education provides me the opportunity to gain experience with all aspects of the Learning Center's programs, introducing me to the culture and challenges of public education, both in Utah and across the nation. In curriculum development, I have learned two pedagogical frameworks that I utilize in writing materials for inquiry-based learning. I have attended the Utah State Office of Education's State Science Education Coordination Committee meetings to learn the infrastructure of science curricula and programs in the state's public schools. I am becoming more aware of standards-based curriculum development guidelines, both at the state and national levels.

The fellowship also familiarizes me with university partnerships with the community and with informal science education institutions. Going through the process of earning a Ph.D. provides a unique perspective on bridging the gap and fostering a relationship between the public school and higher education systems.

Room for Professional Development

This fellowship will help me achieve my goal of being involved with state or national science education policies or organizations. As a postdoctoral fellow, I continue to be closely mentored by two co-directors. I frequently discuss with my supervisor professional career development plans for my next chapter in science education. To this end, my direct supervisor and I have found FASEB's Individual Development Plan for Postdoctoral Fellows to be very useful. (See the Postdoc Network story on this plan here.) The other co-director has introduced me to numerous educational leaders and administrators, as well as colleagues in other science education programs, both locally and nationally.

I am encouraged to attend educational conferences and to participate in university courses. I attended the National Association for Biology Teachers annual convention in October 2002, and presented two workshops with a colleague at the Utah Science Teachers Association annual conference in February 2003. Last fall, I participated in a College of Education course, Instructional Leadership, and now I am completing a course in the Politics of Education. The local administrators, teachers, counselors, and administrative interns who are my classmates provide me a broad perspective in education.

If graduate education is recognized as Yamamoto's hub of a multispoked wheel in science, more avenues like mine will be readily available--and encouraged--for kindling the careers of newly minted Ph.D.s. After receiving biomedical research training, scientists can utilize the skills they develop during graduate school in numerous professions that in turn would mutually benefit from the scientist's experience and eagerness. For me, as the mountain biking season in Utah begins, I trust my "spoke" in precollege science education is strong support for a wheel climbing a trail with energy ultimately focused on improving student achievement in science.

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