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Summer 2008 LS-HHMI Outreach Teachers

In mid-July, Bauer Café regulars might have noticed the threads of unfamiliar conversation in the air. High school biology teachers from Belfast, Maine to Sandwich, Massachusetts gathered over coffee to discuss students, state standards, and school cultures. Mainly, they were there to figure out how best to incorporate exciting new research into basic biology lessons.

The Life Sciences-Howard Hughes Medical InstituteOutreach Summer Program hosted eighteen teachers who were happily immersed in two weeks of lectures and curriculum development. As always, the program benefited from the enthusiastic support of the Molecular and Cellular Biology community.

This year’s program focused on the microbe.

Each morning, the teachers listened as a faculty member presented current research. Organismic and Evolutionary Biology’s Christopher Marx opened the program with “Evolution in Action: Learning About Biology From Adapting Populations of Bacteria in the Lab.” The next day, Gary Ruvkun of Harvard Medical School captivated the audience with his talk about ribosomal RNA and the search for extraterrestrial life. MCB’s Richard Losick acquainted the teachers with the idea of stochasticity in bacterial populations; while Jon Clardy, of HMS and the Broad Institute, talked about symbiotic relationships among insects, fungi and bacteria. Finally, Ashlee Earl, a post-doc in the Kolter Lab at HMS, concluded the first week of the program with her fascinating presentation, “The Many Faces of Bacillus Subtilis.”

The second week’s topics included a presentation on tuberculosis immunity and Vitamin D from Barry Bloom, outgoing Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health; research on the malarial parasite from Dyann Wirth, Chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at HMS; and “Microbes and Climate Change,” by Roberto Kolter of HMS’s Department of Microbiology and Microbial Genetics.

The high-school teachers appreciated the lecturers’ generosity and passion for their research. Many commented that their views of the microbial world had been considerably broadened. Alyssa Schatzel, a biology teacher at Mascomet Regional High School, said the lectures “truly got [her] thinking about how to revamp some aspects of the biology curriculum. Really, you could use microbes as the common thread that weaves all of the lessons on the Massachusetts Frameworks together.”

Participants spent several afternoons in the teaching laboratories with Life Sciences instructor Dawn Hower and MCB graduate students Stanley Lo and Casey Roerhrig. After collecting ants, they performed PCR and gel electrophoresis to determine which ants hosted the Wolbachia bacteria. Each participant alsocreated a take-home Winogradsky column with mud from a salt marsh near Woods Hole. Outreach Program Manager Tara Bennett demonstrated to collect microbes from a variety of environments using easy-to-find supplies.

“It was so great to be able to get into a lab and use things like a micro-centrifuge that we don’t have everyday access to,” one teacher said. “I really like that there were things that we can’t necessarily do in our classrooms – and also things that we can do. It was a nice balance.”

The teachers focused most of their energy on two challenges laid out for them by Tara Bennett and Program Coordinator Susan Johnson. The first was to develop a classroom lesson based on microbes; the second was to partner with colleagues to draft educational animations to be produced this year.

The teachers produced a great amount of quality material in a short amount of time. One animation elucidated horizontal gene transfer, another provided an introduction to microbial diversity. Individual classroom lessons ranged from Jeopardy games on microbial metabolism to webquest research projects on pathogenic microbes. This summer’s lessons and animations will be added to the growing volume of classroom materials on Outreach’s newly redesigned website. Returning teachers praised the website for its streaming video of Harvard scientists, access to Powerpoint presentations, and its library of lessons and short animations.

“The inspiring and intriguing talks, the inquiry – through the labs and projects and animations – all make for a shot of professional development at a time and in a form that we all need,” said one participant.

This sentiment was heard repeatedly on the last day as teachers presented their lessons to each other. As Ellen Moriarty, a biology teacher at Lynn Classical High School said, “This is so much more valuable to me than the workshops we have at school – just to have time to sit down and talk to other teachers and work on our own curriculum.”