Making Schools Better in New York City


A Little History

Although I gained a sound knowledge of biomedical science, my graduate school career also forced me to realize that bench research was definitely not for me. But on graduating from Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University (WGSMS) with a Ph.D. in neuroscience in January 2002 I really had no idea what else was out there, so I continued in my thesis lab as a postdoc, doing a slightly different project and continually putting off the search for a career track that would interest me. After about 6 months of uncertainty and hoping desperately that something different would come along, something did! What was interesting about this opportunity was that I had been readying myself for it during my graduate experience, without realizing it.

Let me back up a few years. During the last 3 years of graduate school I became involved with the outreach activities organized by the newly created WGSMS Outreach Office. The outreach office is an extension of the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers (CIBT), a Howard Hughes-funded outreach program initiated at Cornell-Ithaca in 1989. CIBT's main aims are to organize professional development workshops for secondary school science teachers, conduct visits to schools across New York state, and provide science equipment to classrooms in order to allow teachers to run interesting science labs.

As a volunteer for the outreach office I presented lectures and labs at teacher workshops and visited schools to talk to students about brains, neuroscience, and science in general. Working with the outreach office allowed me to hone my presentation and teaching skills at both the graduate level (when I presented to teachers) and at the secondary school level. During my final year in graduate school I was also an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College and was subsequently "promoted" to an adjunct assistant professor once I graduated with my Ph.D.

As I progressed through my graduate career I came to realize that I really enjoyed teaching, but the only career tracks I could think of along these lines were teaching at a university, where I would probably have to conduct research, or at a high school ... neither of which appealed to me. Fortunately for me, not long into my postdoc appointment, the outreach director for whom I had volunteered over several years decided to go back to graduate school, leaving her position vacant. I was in the right place at the right time, with the right experience and knowledge to continue the work of the outreach office without missing a step. The job just fell in my lap; I took it and ran. So long, academia!!

Director of Fellowships and Outreach

As my title, director of fellowships and outreach, suggests, my role is twofold. As fellowships director I help graduate students at WGSMS find and apply for external predoctoral funding. The fellowships side of my office effectively allows the outreach side to exist, which is good because it is on that side of the office that my passion lies.

Many schools in New York City often have little or no science equipment and little money to spend on labs for the kids. The goal of my office is to address this problem. We received a generous 4-year grant in 1999--fundraising is part of my role in the outreach office--from the Pfizer Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Pfizer Inc., to run our outreach programs.

These programs fall into four broad and overlapping categories: teacher professional-development workshops, a science-equipment lending library, school visits, and "other."

Teacher Professional-Development Workshops

Teacher workshops are usually 1- to 2-day events held on weekends where teachers come to Weill Medical College and listen to lectures and conduct labs on biomedical-related topics. The outreach office has organized 13 such events since 1999, attended by over 500 teachers from local and regional schools. New York State Education Department rules now stipulate that teachers must gain 175 credit hours of professional development (e.g., in college classes or workshops) over 5 years in order to maintain their teaching licenses and to gain tenure. But I like to think that teachers come to my events to gain new insight and knowledge into various aspects of state-of-the-art biomedical science as well as to discover new and exciting labs that they can bring back to their classrooms. I also like to think that they keep coming back because they have a great time here.

Currently, our repertoire of high school science labs include DNA electrophoresis, protein electrophoresis, bacterial transformation, brain dissection, and an HIV diagnostic ELISA.

Lending Library of Science Equipment

Many of the labs that we conduct at the workshops require equipment that would be prohibitively expensive for a single school to purchase, such as DNA electrophoresis equipment, protein electrophoresis equipment, or gel photo cameras. So we have several kits for each lab, enough to cover more than 60 students. Kits are available for teachers to borrow free, and any consumables (e.g., DNA plasmids, restriction enzymes) are provided by the outreach office and CIBT. The only thing the teachers have to do--assuming they've attended one of our workshops--is coordinate their classroom schedules when booking these popular kits.

School Visits

The outreach office also makes regular visits to local and regional schools at the request of teachers and administrators. We present lectures, conduct labs, help teachers with labs, help with science competitions, mentor students, and organize curricula. The most popular reason why teachers ask us to visit their schools is to help present labs that they have learned in the teacher professional development workshops. Many of these labs are quite complex, and teachers may not feel comfortable doing them with students without practice. Several of my graduate student/postdoc volunteers and I visit schools together and present the labs to the students. Through this exercise the kids get to do a great lab and the teacher gets a lesson in how to run the lab in their classroom.


The "other" category covers everything that doesn't easily fall into the categories above. For example, the Cornell Science Challenge mentoring project--originally devised by three graduate students, Sara Glickstein, George Wu, and Chad Thompson--has been run by WGSMS students for the last 7 years. In the challenge, mentors (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, or technicians) visit a group of seventh-grade science students once a week for 3-months and guide them through a science project of their own design, from hypothesis formation, through experimental design and experimentation, to data analysis and write up. At the end of the mentoring program the kids present their results in poster form and receive awards for Best Science, Most Creative Idea, and Best Presentation.

The outreach office is also involved in other, less-regimented mentoring programs, where we send interested graduate students, postdocs, technicians, and faculty into local schools to help with tutoring, science project design and implementation, and curriculum development.

How to Get a Job as an Outreach Director

There are two basic routes that you might take if you want to get involved in outreach to secondary schools:

1. The "experience" route--get the experience in any way you can, then find a position to suit your skills (or, if you're lucky, have one fall in your lap). Going this route (the one I took) means getting into as many teaching and mentoring activities as you can during your graduate student and postdoc career. There certainly will be no shortage of secondary school teachers who are willing to utilize your services, especially if you work in or near a big city. If your teaching and mentoring activities fall under the umbrella of a local outreach office, so much the better, but I wouldn't let the lack of such an office slow you down. If there isn't one nearby then create an outreach program yourself. Several of my graduate student colleagues did exactly this before the outreach office opened--no help from staff or faculty, just lots of hard work and dedication.

2. The "official" route--graduate-level teaching colleges around the world provide courses and degrees for teacher educators (the official title for what I do). Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City has doctoral and master's programs in teacher education. If you can stomach doing another graduate-level degree and have a passion for teacher education then this is a viable way to go. It also potentially opens up many careers other than outreach. For example, you might consider an academic position in the science program at a teachers college, or teaching science at a secondary school.

I fell into a career that I love that allows me to utilize all the skills I gained in my Ph.D. studies and also allows me to help a segment of the population that are very much underappreciated--teachers--and the people they exist to help--their students. Although the number of academic institutions that currently fund a position like mine is limited, I believe their number is increasing. If you are considering following this career route or would just like to do some outreach here and there, just remember that any little effort that you apply will have huge benefits for the teacher and student population that you serve.

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