Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

LIFE SCIENCES-HHMI OUTREACH SUMMER PROGRAM 2009

by Susan Johnson and Markus Meister

September 24th, 2009


2009 Program participants --click here for full list--

One chilly July afternoon, five high school biology teachers were energetically discussing how to design an animation that would best portray the complex process of blood sugar regulation in the human body. Dale Muzzey, a biophysics graduate student and animator, stepped in occasionally to provide guidance on what Macromedia Flash software could and could not do well. With his support they hit upon a workable interactive model. Then the teachers turned their attention to the task of finalizing the content. How much detail would they include? What level high school class would they target? What key concepts did they want their students to take away from this animation?

Meanwhile, three other groups of teachers were engaged in a similar endeavor: drafting short animations on topics in physiology for a high school audience. The teachers were participants in the Life Sciences-HHMI Outreach Program hosted by the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. The goal of this program is to use the university's access to cutting edge biological research and technology to enhance high school biology education. The Outreach Program reinvigorates participating teachers by exposing them to current research, enables Harvard faculty, graduate students and post-docs to make a direct impact on pre-college education, and provides high school students with engaging new biology curricula.

This summer, the two-week workshop focused on physiology, in particular, the mechanics and evolution of movement and metabolism in humans, and the current state of nutrition, obesity and public health. The eighteen participating teachers came from public, private, parochial and charter schools in Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. On Monday, July 6th, Dr. Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Biological Anthropology, started the lecture series with an eye-opening talk about the evolution of humans as distance-running animals and current day implications for fitness and health. Dr. Steven Gortmaker, Professor of Health Sociology at the Harvard School of Public Health, followed with a broad view of pediatric health statistics in terms of nutrition, exercise and, in particular, the intake of sugar-sweetened beverages. Wednesday's presentation by Dr. Andrew Biewener, the Department Chair of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, focused on the physiology and control of animal movement illustrated with videos from the Concord Field Station. The following week, Dr. George Lauder, Curator of Ichthyology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, also discussed animal movement particularly in fish and entertained the teachers with videos of robots designed to replicate animal movement. Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Patti, Director of the Genomics Core Laboratory at the Joslin Diabetes Center, concluded the lecture series with a presentation of current research on diabetes.

On Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, Dr. Jennifer Carr, Life Sciences 2 Preceptor, and Lauder Lab graduate student Brooke Flammang-Lockyer, led the enthusiastic group through an undergraduate physiology laboratory that examined carbohydrate and fat metabolism. The teachers found their own tidal volumes and watched several colleagues find their maximum ventilation rate on the treadmill. The following Wednesday, the teachers were treated to laboratory tours by Joshua Cameron of MCB's Dowling Lab, Casey Roehrig of the Hunter Lab, Natalie Funk of the Murray Lab, and Systems Biology Post-doctoral fellows John Koschwanez, Joao Xavier, and Krushnamegh Kunte. The tours gave the teachers their first glimpse inside the Northwest Building and the graduate students and Bauer Fellows an opportunity to share their research with a rapt audience. Afterwards the tour guides and teachers enjoyed lunch together. Finally, Harvard Natural History Museum educator Jennifer Peterson gave the teachers an orientation to the museum that focused on comparative skeleton morphology.

In addition to giving teachers a window into how research is conducted today, the Outreach program reinvigorates participants' enthusiasm for teaching biology. The presentations help reconnect the teachers to the excitement of research - always the motivating force behind good teaching but a force that is too easily lost in the routine of standardized curricula. Wrote one, “I really miss being a student sometimes and these lectures are the perfect chance to learn something new.” Another exclaimed, “Teachers rarely get such a productive and well-sponsored experience! It was exciting and rejuvenating, just what teachers need during their summer planning periods!”

The teachers spent most of the workshop funneling their updated knowledge and renewed enthusiasm into the creation of classroom materials. They relished the long stretches of uninterrupted time allocated for curriculum development, as well as the other resources not available at their schools: access to fast computers and data lines, the full text of on-line journals, and access to the internet in the absence of filters. Jose Lopez from the FAS Academic Technology Group, facilitated the technical side of the Outreach program and provided teachers with critical computer support for the duration of the workshop. All classroom materials will be disseminated to a broad audience via the Outreach website and include online research projects, games, PowerPoint presentations and more, aimed at a wide variety of student audiences.

Because molecular and cellular concepts are best taught visually, the teachers welcomed the opportunity to create interactive media that captures students' imaginations. As they worked in collaborative groups to draft original animations on physiological topics, they turned to Outreach Program Manager, Tara Bennett, Program Coordinator, Susan Johnson, and consultant, Dr. Christine Rodriguez for technical and content support. Their detailed storyboards will be rendered into complete animations by professional animators and will be added to the growing library of animations for high school students on the Outreach website.

This summer marked the seventh summer of Outreach's vital program and as always, the teachers were greatly enriched by the willingness of the Harvard community to share their expertise and resources. The Outreach Program is grateful to the faculty and staff of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, the Concord Field Station, The FAS Center for Systems Biology, and the Academic Technology Group for their continued enthusiastic support. From veterans to first-year teachers, participants give overwhelmingly positive feedback about their experience with LS-HHMI Outreach. Because teachers are often physically and temporally isolated from their colleagues and must focus on meeting day-to-day classroom challenges, they highly value the exposure to current research, the time devoted to curriculum development and the opportunity to exchange ideas with colleagues offered by the Outreach Program. Wrote one, “Being a classroom teacher allows for very little personal learning and I want my professional development opportunities to continue my own intellectual growth.” Another added, “As a first year teacher this experience was invaluable. It helped enhance my content knowledge, organize my thoughts for planning a lesson (which I had very little time to do this past year), and to acquire fabulous ideas.” Teacher-authored animations, classroom materials and streaming videos of faculty lectures are available to all on the Outreach website. Please take a moment to visit: www.outreach.mcb.harvard.edu.