SciTrek- Helping students learn “How Science Works”

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Mealworms are ~1 inch long larva with a slightly hardened exterior to help them burrow underneath rocks, logs, or in stored grains, but how do mealworms find food and a comfortable environment? To find the answer, 3rd graders at numerous elementary schools in the Santa Barbara, California area worked with staff and volunteers from the UCSB SciTrek program, a K-12 science outreach venture created by Dr. Norbert Reich to improve science education in 2nd-8th grade classrooms by bringing the resources, people, and modules in order to help teachers.

SciTrek_1 The members of SciTrek have created modules that combine a fun activity and test subject (in this case worms!) with learning how to be a scientist.  Each module balances the need for efficient classroom management and meeting specific Next Generation Science Standards with the freedom for students to reason and think critically about each aspect of doing science.

For the mealworm module, SciTrek members worked with a number of local area teachers to develop an interactive, 6 lesson module to test what factors affect the direction a mealworm travels, in order to explore the role of food, moisture, light, and surface texture on mealworm habitat and health.

After learning about and making observations on the mealworms, students were guided through developing testable hypotheses with controllable variables. Many hypothSciTrek_2eses were different from each other, with no “plug and chug” protocol stifling scientific inquiry. For example, “If there are more than 6 mealworms in one pill container slot at time point 0, then the mealworms will travel away from each other until there are 3 mealworms per container slot at time point 5 minutes.” Students formulated an experimental plan and ran the experiment, making sure they conducted each trial multiple times so that they could calculate elementary statistics and gauge confidence in their results. Finally, students analyzed their data and presented their findings at a classroom poster session. Students were encouraged to make statements on what makes a mealworm travel based upon their data, with the understanding that there wasn’t necessarily one correct answer.

This type of module is typical of the SciTrek approach. Besides providing equipment and materials, SciTrek’s roll during the actual module is to create an environment that encourages students to think like scientists, meaning students learn to make observations and then try to objectively figure out why those observations are true and what they mean. This process requires patience, and breaking bad habits that limit exploration by discouraging experiments that don’t always work or by following experimental plans instead of creating them.

SciTrek offers a comprehensive online resource containing numerous modules (including mealworms), along with teacher instructions and student lab notebooks for nonlocal educators teaching 2nd-8th graders. To learn more about SciTrek, read our interview with Dr. Reich to learn about aspects of SciTrek’s creation, maintenance, and future plans, or visit SciTrek’s website.

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].

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!

Strengthening Teacher-Scientist Partnerships

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Ask a scientist what “outreach” means to them, and the majority will mention something about working with K-12 students. Unfortunately, these types of interactions tend to be sporadic, poorly executed, and bereft of quantitative assessment and evaluation, depriving those involved of any true, long-lasting benefit. To rectify this situation, a disparate group of programs has sprung up across the country, each aiming to create substantial, sustainable partnerships between the scientific research and K-12 education communities.

ITSP Program CoverSeveral of these programs were on display at the second International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference, held February 11 and 12 in San Francisco, CA. Hosted by the UCSF Science and Health Education Partnership, the meeting brought together various stakeholders, including teachers, students, researchers and administrators, to share best practices and identify areas for improvement.

Highlighting the conference were the two keynote addresses, the first a discussion between former National Academies of Science President Bruce Alberts and Shirley Malcom, Director for Education and Human Resources Programs at AAAS. Both speakers applauded the formation of such partnerships, and emphasized the need for teachers and scientists to learn from each other. Malcom even went so far as to point out that implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) necessarily required such collaborations.

On the second day, Helen Quinn, former Chair of the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education, talked about the need for three-dimensional science learning that incorporated facts, practices and concepts, an approach that informed the development of the NGSS. Echoing Malcom, Quinn pointed to teacher-scientist partnerships as a necessary tool for implementing the NGSS, pointing out that the standards imposed new demands on science teachers that would be impossible to meet without the provision of additional, novel support and professional development.

The bulk of the conference was filled with overlapping sessions and workshops that showcased different approaches to forming and sustaining partnerships. Despite the differences between programs, several consistent themes did emerge:

  1. Defined roles and outcomes

Oftentimes, the biggest failing in these partnerships comes from the fact that the goals, objectives and intended outcomes have not been agreed upon by both sides beforehand, leading to confusion and ineffectiveness. All presenters pointed out that their success stemmed from jointly working with both scientists and teachers (and their students) to resolve these issues in advance of any activities, so that everyone was able to be on the same page. A second point of emphasis was that for a particular partnership to be successful, scientists need to act as resources and role models, rather than as instructors. In this way, scientists can greatly increase the accessibility students (and teachers) have to the research enterprise, helping to remove the barriers between these groups.

  1. Local, bottom-up approach

While expressing support for a concerted, national support network (such as the soon-to-be extinct NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program), almost all presenters and attendees spoke about the need to develop programs and collaborations locally. Though all in attendance were in support of a concerted effort to effect broad change in the education system, there was a general agreement that focusing effort on working with individual classrooms, schools and even school districts allows for more fluid partnerships that are more easily able to steer clear of the messy politics so often responsible for impediments to reform in education.

  1. Sustainability (resources, participation)

Funding was a major issue for all involved, as financial support for non-traditional education activities is sporadic. Presentations from the West Virginia Health Sciences & Technology Academy and the Integrated Science Education Outreach (InSciEd Out) program at the University of Minnesota highlighted their ability to successfully raise funding from a wide variety of local sources, both big and small, again pointing to the need for local connections. Attendees added that another difficulty was in maintaining participation by both scientists and teachers, and suggested establishing pipelines that would funnel both towards each other.

  1. Evaluation and Assessment

Recognizing that assessing the impact of a particular activity or program is inherently difficult, most presenters were nonetheless able to point to a proven track record of improved STEM learning and performance for students, thanks to the ability to follow students throughout their primary education. More qualitative feedback from scientists and teachers demonstrates a nearly universal benefit in terms of professional development and willingness to engage and participate.

 

The conference will be held again in 2017, by which point even more programs will have undoubtedly arisen. In the interim, ASBMB will be using our connections and resources to increase awareness of, and participation by, our members in such partnerships. If you are interested in finding out more about these partnerships, contact the ASBMB Public Outreach Office at outreach@asbmb.org.

 

More information about the conference, including a list of participating programs, can be found here.

A summary of tweets from the meeting is available here.

A National Day of Making

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Sometimes you don’t need to wear an athletic uniform to be featured in a photo-op with the President of the United States. Sometimes you can just be a scientist. Case in point: the inaugural White House Maker Faire on June 18. A mix between show and tell and a science fair, the Maker Faire showcased, in the words of President Obama, how to “learn by doing,” demonstrating the practical applications of science and math.

White House Maker Faire“What on earth have you done to my house?” exclaimed Obama to the eclectic group of invitees, comprised of professional and amateur scientists and engineers of all ages, as he examined the dozens of inventions scattered throughout the White House. “Smart” furniture, 3-D printers, LED devices and life-size robotics were among the featured creations on display. Meanwhile, virtual participants from around the world joined the fun online, posting pictures and videos of their own additions to the Maker Faire mix.

That disruptive mindset is a particularly appropriate attribute of the Maker Faire movement that began in 2006 in the California Bay Area. Advertised as a “family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness”, the Maker Faire is a gathering place for inventors, creators, designers, scientists and artists, who all convene to share their work and their process. “We are all makers,” claims Maker Faire founder Dale Dougherty. This year, over 100 cities will host their own versions, culminating in the World Maker Faire in New York on September 20-21.

Importantly for the STEM community, events such as the Maker Faire provide an unparalleled opportunity to bring their efforts to the general public. Combined with the now-annual White House Science Fair, the Maker Faire is part of a broader trend that has seen the Obama administration be a continuous champion for STEM. With this kind of support, the President might be in line for an honorary lab coat.

Social Science

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How should science be taught in the 21st century? In this month’s ASBMB Today, authors Morgan Thompson, Jon Beckwith and Regina Stevens-Truss argue that, in contrast to the traditional siloed approach, modern training in science requires perspectives that incorporate public discourse and consider the societal context of scientific research. Their solution is the Science and Social Justice Project, a joint collaborative between Kalamazoo College and Harvard Medical School that “seeks to identify, connect, and coordinate scholars doing science and social justice teaching and research.”

The idea of applying such an inclusive approach to scientific training is one that is gaining traction throughout the scientific community. Sonny Ramaswamy, Director of the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture program, has argued that science communicators should be involved in research projects from beginning to end, in an effort to bring broader social, ethical and political perspectives to experimental design and interpretation. Meanwhile, collaborations that address the overlap between scientific and societal issues have become more common and more formalized. Numerous institutions now feature such programs, including Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy and the Stanford University Program in Law, Science & Technology.

Without Borders Conference

As the Science and Social Justice Project grows, the project leaders hope to get more and more scientists involved in their effort. A major step will be the WITH/OUT — ¿BORDERS? Conference, held September 25-28, 2014. The conference will create “conversations on emerging epistemologies, radical geographies, critical solidarities, and transgressive practices that transcend and theorize across disciplinary and academic/activist borders.”

The role of science within popular culture is rapidly expanding. Ensuring that upcoming generations of scientists and non-scientists are able to freely converse and navigate between their respective areas of expertise will improve not only science, but society as a whole.