Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

OUTREACH PROGRAM FOR TEACHERS FOCUSED ON MICROBES AND DISEASE

by Susan Johnson and Markus Meister

March 2nd, 2009

If you were tempted by cookies and coffee outside the Biolabs lecture hall on Wednesday afternoons in the fall, you were likely one of many MCB community members dismayed to see fierce signs stating, “For Outreach Teachers Only.” Alas, the snacks were for the 70 high school biology teachers arriving after their school day from as far away as Springfield to participate in Life Sciences-HHMI Outreach's Fall Lecture Program. The teachers fueled up, and then listened to Harvard scientists present research that related to the fall program's broad theme, “Microbes and Disease.” After hearing the lectures or participating in laboratory activities and tours, the teachers gathered for a collegial dinner in the Bauer Center.

The fall program kicked off October 1st with a lecture by Harvard Medical School faculty member Dr. Roberto Kolter entitled, “Bugs R Us.” Dr. Kolter proposed teaching students about the diversity of microbes and their essential role in the planet's well-being, rather than learning only about human pathogens. He also reviewed current research on the myriad microbes inhabiting the human body. Dr. Stephen Calderwood of MGH gave the next talk, entitled “Cholera as a model of human diarrheal disease and mechanisms mediating protection.

Several weeks later, on October 22nd, Dr. Deborah Hung of HMS and the Broad Institute presented her talk, “A Race against resistance,” which detailed her experience, and stressed the urgent need for new antibiotics. Following her lecture the teachers were given tours of the Gurguis, Marx and Pringle laboratories.

On November 5th, the teachers reconvened in classrooms at the Science Center to try several high school level activities. Life Sciences instructor Dr. Dawn Hower and Dr. Cuong Diep from HMS helped teachers prepare their own Winogradsky columns with mud collected from the Sippewissett marsh near Wood's Hole. MCB graduate students Stanley Lo and Casey Roehrig led a workshop in isolating and observing clover-root nodules and soil bacteria. And finally, Outreach Program Manager Tara Bennett led a workshop entitled, “How to be a Microbe MacGyver,” in which she demonstrated the use of easy-to-find supplies to collect microbes from a variety of environments.

Outreach Program Coordinator Susan Johnson introduced the teachers to an extensive array of classroom materials on the newly re-organized Outreach website. In addition to streaming video of all scientist lectures, the participants were shown a library of animations and lesson plans on a variety of topics - the result of five years of Outreach's summer multimedia workshops for teachers. The new website also showcases links to two important Life Science initiatives: “BioVisions,” animations and instructional media, and “Cyberbridge,” an introductory biology online tutorial.

On November 19th, the teachers returned to hear OEB scientist Dr. Colleen Cavanaugh discuss her research on the sulfur-based world of deep-sea hydrothermal vent microbes in her talk, “Dancing in the Dark: Chemosynthesis and Symbiosis.” Harvard Medical School's Dr. Christopher Walsh followed with his talk, “Antibiotics: Past, Present and Future,” in which he outlined the dire need for new antibiotics and forward-thinking strategies for antibiotic development and implementation.

On December 3rd, Dr. Peter Girguis of OEB followed up on Dr. Cavanaugh's talk with “Life in a Microbial World: The ecology of microbes at hydrothermal vents.” Finallly, MCB's Dr. Richard Losick wrapped up the program with “Stochasticity and cell fate,” where he discussed how individual bacteria can switch between different physiological states, thereby possibly giving the population a survival advantage.

As always, the LS-HHMI Outreach Program addressed several acute needs of high school biology teachers. All the participants valued the informal nature of the program, with its built-in time for teachers to meet each other over a meal.

Outreach veteran Laurie Pancoast of Amesbury H.S. said “During dinner we have the opportunity to informally network and exchange ideas with our colleagues in other districts - an opportunity that is rare in my experience.”

Most important was the exposure to current research by top-notch faculty who were willing to give the teachers an hour of insight into their worlds.

Thomas Danko, a teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, said that the lecturing scientists, “honor us with their presence and model for us a key tenet of the scientific process - the sharing of ideas. Following a class I often feel refreshed and recharged to return to my classroom a more thoughtful and informed teacher.”

The majority of participants expressed a commitment to return year after year - as long as the program could take them. Margie Clark-Kevan of Conant High School in Jaffrey, N.H. exclaimed, “Although it is difficult to...hop in the car to commute 1.5-2 hours after working a full day, the trip is worth it! I come home after the lectures tired, yet full of new information and thoughts that I'm excited to share with my students the next day.”