The Center for Translational Science Education – Outreach through the Prism of Research

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No matter the subject, students find it hard to focus on material that is abstract and can’t be applied to their daily lives. The Center for Translational Science Education (CTSE) at Tufts University has designed the Great Diseases program to make the link between health and basic science very clear to high school students. In addition to explaining the science behind these diseases, the material in the Great Diseases program emphasizes ways that science can inform our choices so we can live healthier lives. This program is divided into four Great Disease modules; infectious diseases, neurological disorders, metabolic diseases, and cancer. These four groups cover most illnesses imaginable, and cover the diseases any given person is most likely to suffer from during her/his lifetime. Each module includes at least one in-class demonstration led by a volunteer scientist, and the material from all four modules can cover a full academic year. Teachers can use as many or as few of the modules as they’d like for free, and they work with scientists on CTSE staff to better understanding the material.

Teachers learning about brain anatomy.

Teachers learning about brain anatomy.

You would think that an institute focused on creating engaging high school curricula would be staffed by people with formal education backgrounds. This is an area where the CTSE differs from other outreach groups. Dr. Berri Jacque, Research Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the CTSE, says what distinguishes their program is that the CTSE does “outreach through the prism of research.” The CTSE is staffed by scientists and postdoctoral fellows who use their research skills to evaluate their programs, publish their work, and then use their findings to improve their programs.

The CTSE developed the Great Diseases program with teachers from the Boston Public School system, and it has been used by teachers in Boston and beyond. One teacher, when asked about the program, said “I was originally skeptical, but I was so impressed with how effective it was that I am very eager to use this approach in my biology class.” The CTSE showed in their Academic Medicine paper that thousands of students have demonstrably improved understanding of the Great Diseases material, and that most teachers find this program very valuable. The CTSE is currently working on ways to assess if students make healthier choices after taking Great Disease classes.

Now that the material for the Great Diseases program is complete, the CTSE is focused on expanding their program around the country, keeping their material up to date with the newest scientific discoveries, and supporting teachers using the Great Diseases modules. These are all areas where scientists can volunteer. Why should you get involved?

A teacher learning about brain anatomy

A teacher learning about brain anatomy

“I think it’s so important for scientists, and particularly younger scientists, to get broader training in what they’re doing,” says Dr. Jacque. He tells scientists generally interested in volunteering to “think really critically about the ways you can make a real impact. Teachers are really great, as far as thinking about targeting who you’re going to spend your time with, because they interact with so many students in their career. Anything they can learn from you impacts far more people than you could ever impact with a couple classroom visits.” The CTSE will coordinate one-on-one video chats between teachers and scientist volunteers who can support them while they cover the Great Diseases material. The material from this program is not usually taught at a high school level, and most teachers are “really hungry to have that interaction with a scientist and to learn more about the science world.” Scientists from all over the country can help this way after a short training period with Dr. Jacque, giving you a great way to have a huge impact while only investing a few hours of your time.

To learn more about the CTSE and how you can get involved, read our article and contact Dr. Berri Jacque [berri.jacque@tufts.edu].

Fresh Brewed Science – Science by the Cup

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Mr. Waldman leading a tour through his coffee roastery.

Mr. Waldman leading a tour through his coffee roastery.

When you say “science outreach,” most people think of working with K-12 students. Reaching adults is just as important, since adults decide how much our society values science, but this can be much more difficult. Even adults who bring their children to science fairs and care about STEM engagement can find it hard to relate to demonstrations and lessons designed for kids. Science by the Cup, an outreach initiative run by the Princeton Graduate Molecular Biology Outreach Program and supported by an ASBMB Outreach Seed Grant, is targeted specifically for adults to address this outreach gap.

One way that Science by the Cup differs from a science cafe, another event class typically aimed at adults, is that Science by the Cup events are not led by scientists. Rather, they are led by an expert with a specialized skill that requires knowledge of the underlying science. The first Science by the Cup event was a tour of Rojo’s Roastery, a small batch coffee maker in Princeton, NJ, that was led by its founder J. David Waldman. Mr. Waldman discussed the chemicals behind coffee’s flavor and aroma, as well as how coffee beans are harvested and processed. Graduate student volunteers complemented the tour by discussing how taste receptors function, the genetic basis of flavor, and subjectivity and bias.

A 1956 gas-fired Probat roaster producing fresh roasted coffee beans.

A 1956 gas-fired Probat roaster producing fresh roasted coffee beans.

The second Science by the Cup event was a tour of a brewery and a discussion of the biology of fermentation, leading to a discussion of the technology behind genetically modified yeast and other organisms and the ethics behind this work. Science by the Cup has been very successful and plans to continue holding events to showcase local experts and the science behind their skills.

Mr. Garner Soltes, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton and organizer of Science by the Cup, wrote about this program for ASBMB Today. To read his article and learn more about this program, click here.

Freedom to fail: Mastering Scientific Experimentation at the Academy of Science

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Imagine yourself as a high school student. Would you trust yourself with a delicate piece of laboratory equipment worth thousands of dollars? Or with coming up with your own independent research project? As scary as these ideas may sound, they are part of the innovative model for high school education that is the basis of the Academy of Science (AOS), a public school in Loudoun County, Virginia.

These two students are in the first year of a study that is investigating the creation and use of zinc-coated quantum dots as biomarkers, in a project titled "Shining a Light on Cancer."

These two students are in the first year of a study that is investigating the creation and use of zinc-coated quantum dots as biomarkers, in a project titled “Shining a Light on Cancer.”

“As anyone with or working towards a Ph.D. knows, the only way to really master something is by attempting experimentation and failing,” says Mr. George Wolfe, director of the AOS. “We call inquiry the freedom to fail, and that’s what we give our kids. We give them the freedom to fail through the research process, and you’ll be astounded when you talk to these kids and see the level of their work. They are smart, but it’s because of what we do and the way we do it that they are a cut above.”

At the AOS, every student conducts a two-year research project of their own design. All experiments are performed at the AOS under the mentorship of a teacher, and the array of instruments available to AOS students could make many college departments jealous. The AOS is supported as part of a partnership between Loudoun County Public Schools and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and has used this support to acquire laboratory equipment “not typically available to high school students,” says Wolfe.

These two students have spent two years investigating the development of a blood test for Parkinsons using exosome contents of affected neurons, with aims to produce a diagnostic blood test.

These two students have spent two years investigating the development of a blood test for Parkinsons using exosome contents of affected neurons, with aims to produce a diagnostic blood test.

Students prepare for their projects by taking inquiry-driven integrated physical science and math courses that are unlike any other high school curriculum. They then begin to develop their research focus and submit their final project proposals, complete with reports demonstrating that their project is feasible, at the end of sophomore year. The students then conduct experiments junior and senior year, and some even collaborate internationally.

ASBMB members can benefit from taking on AOS students as interns, and can help budding scientists when they are inevitably stuck during the research process. Dr. Nanette Chadwick, a professor at Auburn University, helped one AOS student who ended up coming to Auburn to work in her lab. She says that “it has been a wonderful collaboration, and stemmed from her outreach to me, due to her project at AOS. It was her excellent research project at AOS that led her to my lab. I would be happy to have AOS or other high school students intern with me.” Wolfe says this is not uncommon for scientists who help AOS students, saying they “are usually overwhelmed by the quickness with which these kids learn and the techniques they’ve mastered at sixteen-years old, and they require only a minimum of training.” Sounds like a win-win.

To learn more about this program, read our profile on the ASBMB Public Outreach website, or contact Mr. Wolfe [George.Wolfe@lcps.org] to start working with the AOS.

Community Resources for Science (CRS) – Supporting our Smallest Scientists and Their Teachers

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How can scientists foster critical thinking and problem solving skills in young children? Research shows that kids as young as eight months generate and test hypotheses about how things work as they play. Unfortunately, these early tendencies are suppressed and impeded when children are restricted to learning in traditional academic environments filled with strictly structured lectures.

In order to nurture and sustain these scientific tendencies, Community Resources for Science (CRS), a science outreach group based in the Bay Area, helps elementary and middle school science teachers incorporate more active-learning into their lessons by facilitating partnerships with local scientists. This scientist volunteer program, called BASIS (Bay Area Scientists in Schools), has more than 550 participants who write lessons and lead demonstrations in elementary and middle school classrooms. In the 2014 – 2015 academic year, BASIS volunteers went to 450 classrooms and reached nearly 10,000 K-6 students.

A BASIS volunteer working in a classroom

A BASIS volunteer working in a classroom

Teresa Barnett, executive director of CRS, says that the scientist volunteers are a huge part of this program’s success. “If the Next Generation Science Standards are to succeed in really changing the way science and engineering are taught, providing students with real-world connections and experience with the practices of science and engineering, it will take the support of STEM professionals,” she says. Most BASIS volunteers are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from the University of California, Berkeley, and they work in self-formed teams to design lesson plans for the K – 6 age group. CRS guides them through the design process to ensure the classes are engaging and appropriate for this young audience.

Both students and teachers benefit from this approach. “Students thrive and delight in the inspiration of diverse, enthusiastic role models,” says Barnett. She goes on to say that “the vast majority of teachers we work with indicate that having BASIS volunteers in their classrooms helps them to see their students engaged in learning in new ways, motivates them to increase the amount of science they teach, increases their content knowledge, and increases their confidence and motivation.” BASIS has been very successful in this regard, as evidenced by internal and external program evaluations which show that participating students are actively engaged, and demonstrate skills such as critical thinking and problem solving.

A BASIS volunteer leading a lesson in a classroom

A BASIS volunteer leading a lesson in a classroom

A unique facet of the CRS volunteer base is that, while most volunteers are scientists, a scientific background is not actually necessary. Ms. Barnett says that “volunteer teams from industry can include people from across the company, such as in public relations and human resources, who work together with scientists on teams to present lessons. They can share with students about using their own skills (such as communication or graphic design) within a company that is a science-based business, and the importance of being STEM literate even if they are not themselves bench scientists or engineers.”

Unfortunately, CRS does not have enough volunteers to connect scientists with every teacher who needs them, so Barnett is always looking for more help.  “[Volunteers] are needed and appreciated!”  she says. “Explaining your research to eight-year olds is a significant challenge, but it helps to make STEM professionals better at sharing their research with a broader audience.” More importantly, designing and implementing active learning activities “is an important way to help prepare the future generation of problem-solvers, researchers, leaders, and inventors.”

To learn more about Community Resources for Science, visit the ASBMB Public Outreach website or contact Ms. Barnett [teresa@crscience.org] to see how you can get involved.

Science Outreach Events at the 2015 ASBMB Annual Meeting

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If you have ever struggled to explain your research to a family member, you know how difficult it can be to effectively explain science to the lay public. Communicating clearly about your work can be tricky even when you’re talking to another scientist. The ability to communicate effectively is also a critical skill when applying for grant funding. Figuring out how to make a meaningful connection between your outreach and your research can be particularly difficult when crafting a Broader Impacts statement as part of the application for NSF funding. Luckily for those planning to attend the 2015 ASBMB Annual Meeting, the Public Outreach Committee has organized several events to address all of these issues.

The first outreach event of this year’s meeting is the “How to Incorporate Science Outreach into Your Portfolio – Best Practices and Broader Impacts” session, running from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM on Saturday, March 28th, in room 252B. This session will start with talks from previous HOPES, Outreach Seed Grant, and UAN Student Chapter Grant winners, showcasing ASBMB’s various funding mechanisms. An informal poster networking session will be held from 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM, followed by lunch and a group discussion until 1:00 PM. Please join us! Register here so we know how many people to expect and how much food to order.

Our next event is the Science Outreach Poster Session, held during the ASBMB opening reception on Saturday evening, March 28th from 7:30 – 9:00 PM in the third level foyer. Come see all the great outreach efforts our members (and others!) are leading across the country, and learn more about how you can get involved in your own community. More information on this session can be found here.

If you have been working on a Broader Impacts Statement, bring a draft to one of our Broader Impacts Workshops. These will be held Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday from 11:00 AM – 1:00 PM outside room 252. Mentors who have successfully won NSF funding have volunteered to help you improve your drafts and show you how to distinguish yourself from other applicants. More information on these workshops can be found here.

Our last two outreach events showcase the fun side of science. The first is the unique and highly interactive session “Improv for STEM Professionals: Creating Engaging Conversations.” Dr. Raquell Holmes, founder of improvscienceTM, will lead this session on Monday, March 30th from 12:30 – 2:00 PM in room 253B. Performed interviews, collaborative storytelling, and other exercises will help attendees learn how to create rapport with and to listen to an audience, making them more engaging speakers both in outreach activities and in professional talks.

Our final outreach event is, appropriately, open to the public. Dr. Raquell Holmes will lead “LIvE: the Living Improv Experiment” at Ned Devine’s Irish Pub, 1 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Quincy Market Building, at 6:30 PM on Monday, March 30th. This living experiment is focused on defining how exactly improv can help science? Can it help everyone communicate more clearly? Can it be useful for starting public discussions? Come find out! Please invite your friends and colleagues, both in and outside the laboratory, to join us. This event is going to be a lot of fun, and to get the most of out it you should prepare to be very actively involved. We’ll start with group exercises and then move on to small groups, so that everyone gets a chance to practice and learn! Use this link to register.

For more information about all of our outreach events, please click here. We hope to see you in Boston!