Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

HARVARD'S LIFE SCIENCES OUTREACH PROGRAM AT 10 YEARS
Building “a Community of Learners” throughout New England

by Richard Saltus

January 8th, 2013

(l to r) Tara Bennett, Prof. Rob Lue, Susan Johnson, Prof. Catherine Dulac, and Alia Qatarneh

For the past decade, the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology has been volunteering its resources, teaching staff and enthusiasm to help enrich high school biology education across Massachusetts and beyond.

MCB’s multi-faceted Harvard Life Sciences and Systems Biology Outreach Program has brought hundreds of high school teachers and thousands of students over the years to Harvard for lectures, hands-on labs, demonstrations and tours.  And most recently, thanks to a grant from the Amgen Foundation, Harvard has purchased sophisticated kits of lab equipment for loan to high schools that may lack such resources or can’t afford to send teachers and students to Cambridge.

By all accounts, it’s been a major success. “We’ve created a community of learners,” says Tara Bennett, a former high school teacher who is a manager of the Outreach Program. “I get weekly requests from teachers to use our resources: it may just be a question, or a request to come and visit a museum.”

The program was born in 2002 when Prof. Robert Lue, Director of Life Science Education, proposed and received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to design an outreach program for high school teachers. Having already worked with high school teachers for several years, his intention was to develop a new approach to outreach that better leveraged Harvard's resources for both research and teaching.

"As an institution of higher education, Harvard invests so much intellectual capital in teaching and learning that I wished to bring some of those resources to high school teachers and their students," says Lue. To this end, he brought in Bennett, who was working in the MCB teaching laboratories, and Susan Johnson, another former high school teacher. A kernel already existed - a small two-week teacher/student outreach effort -- but Lue’s group aimed to greatly expand and redesign it.

The group benefited from a wealth of educational capital within MCB and other departments: the program draws on the expertise of research scientists, who share their knowledge and facilities with teachers, and the enthusiasm of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who serve as role models and guide the high school student visitors through laboratory activities.  Because Bennett and Johnson were experienced classroom biology teachers themselves, they were able to design programs that both showcased these resources and targeted the very specific curricular needs of high school teachers.

"Traditionally, we have offered fall and summer programs for teachers and a spring program for students," Bennett says. The summer program, a two-week biology and multimedia workshops or teachers, was offered for the first eight years but ended in 2010 when its HHMI funding expired.

Fall and spring sessions

The fall session brings 70 high school teachers to the campus every other week for five after-school activities in October and November focused on a single theme or topic. Topics from recent years include Microbes and Disease, Physiology and Morphology, and Biodiversity.  The 2012 series focused on Exploring Genomics and Epigenetics.  Each session begins with a faculty lecture followed by a hands-on lab activity or tour or demonstration, and ends with dinner, which involves a lot of networking “that has created some great relationships,” Bennett says.

Over the decade, 74 faculty members have talked with high school teachers about their research through the program: 21 have been MCB faculty. In addition, 135 post-docs and graduate students have worked with the high school teachers and students in different parts of the program.

The first year of the program, Lue and his team primed the pump by getting lists of biology and life sciences teachers in Massachusetts and sending out some 2,000 invitations; now the program fills up every year, with teachers coming from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. Nearly 350 teachers have participated, half of them twice and some of them as many as ten times.

The teachers have access to videotapes and PowerPoints of the material covered and can share segments of them with their students. Many teachers are telling their students the very next day about what they learned,” Bennett says. "They are so excited, they can hardly wait!"

A second learning opportunity each year is the Spring Laboratory Program for High-School Students, which makes use of the facilities and equipment of the Science Center.

Each teacher whose application is accepted can bring up to 24 students at a time, and the lab program averages about 500 students every year, says Bennett. Students come from varying backgrounds, ranging from those with special needs to advanced placement students. Teams of graduate students and post-docs lead the high-school attendees as they learn to use laboratory equipment and discuss the experimental concepts.

Over the course of six weeks, each teacher brings a class for one session, Bennett explains: the protocols are designed to be completed within the three hours. Teachers can choose from a number of disciplines, such as anatomy, physiology, embryology and systems biology. In many labs, the C. elegans worm system serves as a model.

Amgen-Bruce Wallace Biotechnology program

Many high schools lack the travel funds and substitute teachers to take advantage of Outreach student lab experiences at Harvard. The Amgen Bruce-Wallace Biotechnology program, organized by site technician Alia Qatarneh, is helping to bridge the gap by training teachers to use borrowed laboratory equipment in a series of experiments in their own schools.

Four kits are now available, each with equipment and reagents for up to eight biotech lab protocols. Teachers are trained either at Harvard in weekend workshops or off-site. As soon as a kit is returned to campus from one school, it is immediately re-stocked, to be picked up by another school.

"Over the past year, 38 schools have borrowed the laboratory kits, servicing over 3400 students,” Bennett says. The kits have traveled widely – from schools in Cambridge to Lee in Western Massachusetts, as far north as Belfast, ME, and to Cape Cod.

As state life sciences frameworks have evolved, the Outreach program has kept up. In the summer of 2012, teachers attended a two-day summer workshop on the Human Microbiome, supported by the FAS Center for Systems Biology, which also provided some exposure to bioinformatics.

As the Outreach Program enters the 11th year, its leadership is enthusiastic about  the model and its results. Bennett says, “I feel that we’ve definitely accomplished our goal – to make what’s happening here within Harvard accessible to teachers and students over a wide area."

Bennett and Johnson look forward to developing further opportunities for teachers and students that continue to tap faculty expertise while incorporating new educational technologies being introduced in many school settings.

After a decade of success, Lue and his colleagues say the program is prepared to evolve and grow.

"As Harvard changes the ways that it teaches science, and as the interdisciplinary collaborations between departments and individual faculty members grow, it is a perfect opportunity to further expand our efforts in outreach to better reflect these major shifts in scientific research and teaching,” says Lue. The future of outreach is brighter than ever, as we engage more fields and more members of Harvard’s research community – faculty and students - in the effort.”

View Catherine Dulac's Faculty Profile

View Robert Lue's Faculty Profile