Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

LIFE SCIENCES OUTREACH FOCUSES ON BIODIVERSITY

by Susan Johnson

September 20th, 2010

Two high school biology teachers crouched over microscopes in the Hunter Lab and concentrated on the instructions of Dr. Casey Roehrig, as they released embryos from adult C. elegans. Like the rest of the participants in Life Science Outreach's 2010 Summer Program in Biology and Multimedia, these teachers were assigned to a laboratory for a morning "mini-internship," where they gained insight into the hands-on aspects of investigation. Emily Jacobs-Palmer in the Hoekstra lab showed several teachers how to analyze DNA with a nanospectrophotometer and assess motility of sperm from wild mice, while teachers with Deepa Agashe in the Marx lab discussed the use of robotics in cell culture and streaming cytometry. The Mango, Murray, Giribet, Turnbaugh, and Bomblies laboratories also generously hosted participating teachers. Weymouth High School teacher Malissa Northrup remarked, "it had been years since I had been in a lab and it was nice to see how technology had advanced…In only 10 years, things have changed so much." She echoed a common sentiment when she continued, "It hit home the point that science is constantly advancing and you have to keep up with it."

Providing high school biology teachers with exactly this opportunity, to "keep up" with scientific research, is the goal of the Summer Outreach Program. By connecting motivated teachers with scientists, Outreach enables these teachers to return to their classrooms with current knowledge and renewed enthusiasm for their subject. In addition to becoming immersed in one content area, the teachers make strong professional connections with each other and take advantage of the all-too-rare opportunity to create original curriculum.

This year's theme was "Biodiversity," and as usual, the eighteen participating biology teachers from high schools in Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts were treated to an engaging series of faculty speakers. Bauer Fellow Dr. Kevin Foster kicked off the first week of the program with a talk on "Social evolution in microbes," and was followed by OEB's Dr. Donald Pfister on "Estimating fungal diversity," and Bauer Fellow Dr. Marcus Kronforst presenting, "Caught in the act: polymorphic butterfly reveals the missing link in ecological speciation." The second week featured OEB's Dr. Hopi Hoekstra presenting, "From mice to molecules: the genetic basis of adaptation," and Dr. Scott Edwards on, "Museums, DNA and Avian Evolution," followed by a private tour of the avian collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

In addition, participating teachers heard from a number of Harvard community members working on projects related to life science education and biodiversity. Marie Studer and Tracy Barbaro of the Encyclopedia of Life project showed the teachers how they could utilize this growing database in their classrooms and Jessica Rykken gave them an overview of the Boston Harbor Islands Insect Biodiversity Project. Dr. Ting Wu of Harvard Medical School introduced her initiative, the "Personal Genetics Education Project" and engaged teachers in a discussion about how to effectively integrate this content into public school curricula. Harvard Medical School's Artist-In-Residence, Brian Knep, presented his computer-driven dynamic art including interactive pieces based on the concept of "self-healing" and works-in-progress using model organisms as subject matter.

Undoubtedly, the high point of this year's Outreach Program was a private lunchtime meeting with Dr. E. O. Wilson. In addition to discussing his new novel, Anthill, Dr. Wilson engaged the teachers in a lively dialog about the state of education, the need for students to study nature outdoors and how to instigate a "revolution in teaching." The teachers enjoyed Dr. Wilson's wit and personal anecdotes about teaching and felt honored by his obvious interest in them and in pre-college education. Tammy Due, of Masconomet Regional High School, remarked, "I like that Dr. Wilson wanted to hear what we had to say about the state of education…This time with Dr. Wilson will stay with me a lifetime…" Mark Stephansky, of Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, added that this meeting was, "perhaps the highlight of professional development for my entire career!"

When not being immersed in new content, the Outreach teachers focused their energy on creating original classroom lessons and drafting animations on biodiversity. Outreach Program Coordinator, Susan Johnson, and consultant, Christine Rodriguez, directed and supported the teachers as they attempted to make their lessons media-rich and relevant for a national audience of teachers. Animator Dale Muzzey helped small groups of teachers develop their ideas for short educational flash animations. Several teachers also worked closely with Outreach Program Manager, Tara Bennett, to write teaching modules on the human microbiome for the Center for Systems Biology online Outreach initiative. Several days before the project due-date, the participating teachers shared their works-in-progress with visiting Systems Biology Undergraduate Research Interns. Malissa Northrup commented, "John, the intern I spoke with, gave me a lot of great feedback on my lesson. For example, since it is a long-term project, he suggested I put in "checkpoints" to make sure the students stayed on task. It was an idea I had toyed with, but after I spoke with him, I immediately added them into my lesson." In addition to receiving objective feedback, the teachers appreciated the insight gained into the lives of these undergraduates. "My experience with [my] summer intern ended up being very rewarding," remarked Susan Taylor of the Prout School, "I had lunch with her and 4 other interns and found out what undergrad schools they were from and what lab they were working in as well as what their research entailed. I ended up with a lot of information that will be beneficial to my students."

On the final Friday of the program, the teachers presented their projects to each other. From webquests on diversity in New England fisheries and SMARTboard activities to a scavenger hunt employing digital cameras to report findings to a common classroom blog, the lessons were engaging and targeted a variety of student populations. As always, the teacher curriculum projects, animations and streaming video of faculty talks will be posted on the Outreach Program website at www.outreach.mcb.harvard.edu.

At the traditional ice cream spree wrap-up, the teachers all commented on the impact of Life Sciences Outreach Program. In addition to the invigorating contact with world-reknowned scientists, the interchanges the teachers had with one another were highly valued. Erica Browne of Daniel Hand High School said, "I feel so spoiled…with all the cool info and new ideas that come from hanging around with the faculty and teachers here." Marian High School's Ed Barry mused, "It reminds of the best time within my own classroom where I get to learn something ALONG with my students. I love the role reversal of teacher becoming student – That is why I am here!"

This summer's Life Science Outreach Program was supported by grants from Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Center for Modular Biology and was hosted by the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the FAS Center for Systems Biology. For more information about the program, contact Program Manager Tara Bennett (tbennett@fas.harvard.edu).

Click here to find out more about Backyard Brains