Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology


by Richard Saltus

July 4th, 2013

(l to r) Alix Lacoste, Katherine Rogers, Eric Wu, Jacqueline Brooks, and Minh Vong

One morning before dawn in early April, two dozen high school students and their teacher boarded a bus in Madison, Connecticut, bound for the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge. Three hours later, they trooped into an undergraduate biology lab and took seats around black-topped benches, donning safety glasses and gloves in preparation for a morning-long workshop in DNA extraction, PCR, and gel electrophoresis.  

“This is awesome!” exclaimed one student, appreciating the spacious teaching laboratory.  The lab’s microscopes, the PCR machine and other state-of-the-art equipment, unavailable at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, were now at their fingertips thanks to the Harvard Life Sciences Outreach program.  “Pretty cool,” said another, adding dramatically, “We’re at HARVARD.”  

For six weeks in March and April, the Outreach program provides a college-like laboratory experience for high school biology students and their teachers from schools in Massachusetts and neighboring states. Teachers apply for the opportunity to bring their classes to Harvard Life Sciences labs for a hands-on session, carrying out experiments on topics such as physiology, embryology, the heart and the electrocardiogram, mutations in the worm C. elegans, and antibiotic resistance.

In its 10 years of operation, the Outreach program has brought an average of 500 students and their teachers each year for the spring laboratories, says Tara Bennett, the program manager of Life Sciences and Systems Biology Outreach at Harvard.  Funding from Harvard Life Sciences and grants from NIGMS and the Amgen Foundation defrays the costs.    

On the room’s wide blackboard, their experimental protocol was outlined in colored chalk. Longtime Outreach teaching fellow, Jacqueline Brooks, PhD, led the students through the steps in clear and lively fashion. They swabbed cells from inside their cheeks, extracted the DNA, and made billions of copies through PCR amplification, using a set of primers that selected for a gene used in forensic analysis. Next they ran the DNA on gels that would reveal their genotype at that locus.

Brooks paused at times to describe real-world applications of biotechnology, such as producing insulin in genetically modified bacteria. At other times, she invited the teaching fellows to explain what led them to pursue careers in science and describe their research interests.

After a break for juice and cookies, students lined up at microscopes to look at GFP-labeled features in C. elegans.   Their teacher, Erica Browne, was participating in the spring program for her second year.   “It’s a wonderful experience for the students, to get to work in a Harvard science lab for a few hours,” she said. Her class had discussed PCR and gel electrophoresis in advance, preparing them for the experiments. “They said they were intimidated at first,” Browne said. “They were at Harvard, and they were afraid they’d say something wrong! But Jacqueline [Brooks] was great, and the grad students and postdocs were really helpful.”

After the students had boarded their bus for the homeward trip, Bennett and the teaching fellows huddled to discuss what aspects of the lab went well and ways the presentations could be improved. That afternoon, Life Sciences research associate Alia Qatarneh photographed the gels that had been run and sent them to Hand High School for the students to see the next day as they discussed their results and their significance. “One student hadn’t been able to come on the trip, so I had the others walk her through the experiments – which was kind of a quiz for them,” recounted Browne.
A two-way benefit

"The program was started to provide high school classes with access to not just our teaching labs, but also to young scientists that can share their passions and aspirations,” says Prof. Robert Lue, the Outreach director.  “Likewise, our graduate students and post-doctoral fellows learn what it means to teach and motivate a different audience - clearly a bidirectional benefit for both groups."

Outreach depends on a large network of Harvard graduate students and post-docs who serve as paid teaching fellows. The program “provides a uniquely supportive environment for teaching,” explained Bennett. “Teams of four teaching fellows teach the same laboratory multiple times to different groups of students; the experience is similar to being a student teacher.” She added, “the teaching fellows are wonderful; they are really, really amazing.”

Bennett noted that many former teaching fellows have gone on to science education positions at Harvard. Eight have become preceptors for the introductory Life Sciences courses, and two have become concentration advisors or Assistant Directors of Undergraduate Studies in the Life Sciences.  

Bennett and Susan Johnson, the Outreach Program Managers, are experienced high school teachers. They train the teaching fellows in pedagogy and classroom management techniques, as well as issues of classroom safety and liability. 

Because the labs draw classes with a wide range of intellectual abilities and learning styles, teaching fellows learn specific strategies to vary their presentations.  For example, in a given week, Life Sciences Outreach teaching fellows may find themselves instructing groups as diverse as a class of students with Asperger syndrome, an Advanced Placement Biology class from Lexington High School, “Wards of the State” of Massachusetts, and a class of 9th grade biology students from Malden.  “As teaching fellows are confronted with the reality of making the basic concepts they have long taken for granted in a university setting clear to a group of low-functioning or concrete learners, they must dig deeply to find the right words, illustrations and metaphors,” Bennett explains.

The teaching fellows come to Outreach with different goals and motivations. Jacqueline Brooks has always combined research and teaching; she develops curricula for Life Sciences courses, works an instructor in the Harvard Extension School, and serves as an adviser to Harvard Undergraduates.

“I have always managed to find time to do this because it is so rewarding for me personally,” says Brooks, who’s been with Outreach for eight years, first as a teaching fellow and more recently designing laboratory modules and teaching curricula. As a teaching fellow, she’s enjoyed opportunities to interact with peers from other departments and programs, meet others interested in teaching, “and use teaching skills to help educate the community.”

One of her favorite classes in the spring labs, she says, was made up of students with Asperger syndrome. The labs are designed so that “we can dial them up or down” since some classes are better prepared than others. Brooks’ attitude is, “We’re not here to make you scientists: we’re here for you to explore something new, and have fun and learn.”

Minh Vong is a first-year graduate student in Molecules, Cells, and Organisms who is new to Outreach. Vong, who studies basic cellular molecular biology, taught in the heart laboratory, “where there are calf hearts on the table, and students dissect them to learn the anatomy.  And then, at the end, we hook the students to an EKG machine, and explain how it works – then we monitor their hearts before and after five minutes of exercise to show them the difference.”

Vong came to Harvard after graduating from the University of Science in Philadelphia. “Teaching and mentorship and giving back to the community are important to me,” says Vong, who already knows he would like to be a professor. When he found out about the Outreach program while researching graduate schools, it helped steer him to Harvard.

Katherine Rogers, a fifth-year graduate student, began volunteering for Outreach at the suggestion of her advisor, Alex Schier. Serving as a teaching fellow, she says, “taught me that it’s fun to teach when people are interested and we’re showing them something they haven’t seen before. It’s a unique opportunity and nice to be part of a group to make that happen.”

Rogers has often taught the zebrafish embryology labs and currently her main function is providing the animals for the workshops. “They stain cartilage in older embryos and look at the different stages,” she explains. “The students get a feeling for how things are changing over time as the embryos develop.” As part of the workshop, the students observe mutant strains of zebrafish and are asked to say how they differ from the normal, wild type fish. One strain has a defect in pigmentation; the adults are striped and the embryos have splotches of pigment. Another mutant type is missing an eye and fails to develop properly.

“I feel the take-home message is for the students to have a sense of wonder – to learn how totally cool early embryogenesis is!” Rogers says.

Over the decade of its existence, Outreach and its spring laboratory program for high school classes have evolved to continue to meet the needs of the students who attend. State science curricula and goals change in step with advances and discoveries in the life sciences. The topics and lab protocols must adapt to ensure students are gaining new competencies.

“The high school kids now have to learn about new types of DNA sequencing, and the whole field of bioinformatics has become so important,” Jacqueline Brooks comments. “Tara is very much up-to-date on the curriculum and material that’s in the advanced placement courses: we tailor the labs to what the students need to know.”

And that’s a good thing, Brooks says: “I never get bored with this. I’m learning new things every day.”