K-12 STEM Outreach: A New HOPE(S)

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Developing instructional STEM curricula for deaf students. Using sports to teach STEM concepts to high schoolers. Organizing a C.S.I.-themed research project for 5th graders. The eclectic range of projects being undertaken by this year’s batch of awardees from the ASBMB Hands-on Opportunities to Promote Engagement with Science (HOPES) seed grant program showcases the myriad creative approaches to improve STEM education for K-12 students across the country. In 2015, the seed grant program received 27 applications, of which a total of nine were ultimately funded. To read more about this year’s HOPES recipients, click here.

Now in its fifth year, the goal of the HOPES program, which offers grants of up to $2000 for STEM partnerships between academic researchers and K-12 teachers, is to foster the development of sustained, mutually beneficial outreach partnerships that will enable educators and community leaders to leverage the resources and expertise of scientists from local colleges, universities, and industry as a means for engaging students and members of the public in active, stimulating, and informative STEM experiential learning activities, regardless of their background or level of experience.

This year saw the introduction of two new twists to the HOPES program. Awardees are now able to apply for a second year of funding from ASBMB, in order to help ensure the sustainability of their project. One of the main drawbacks pointed out by previous recipients was that, while the funds provided by HOPES were great for setting up a pilot project, ensuring that this project continued on in subsequent years was difficult without guaranteed funding support. Tacking on a second year to the award will help alleviate this issue by providing a short yet significant level of sustainability, thus allowing for buy-in from other potential stakeholders such as local companies and private foundations, or even school systems.

A second twist was holding the annual HOPES workshop outside of the confines of its traditional home within the Experimental Biology (EB) meeting, in order to increase the geographic diversity of HOPES participants beyond San Diego and Boston, which have between them hosted the past four EB meetings. This year, HOPES PI Regina Stevens-Truss led the interactive workshop, in which attendees hear from previous HOPES grant recipients and get a chance to network with potential partners, during the ASBMB Transforming Undergraduate Education in Molecular Life Sciences special symposium, held at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, MO.

Moving forward, the HOPES committee (Dr. Stevens-Truss, Dr. Peter Kennelly [Virginia Tech] and Dr. Ray Sweet [Janssen Pharmaceuticals, retired]) aims to expand the reach of the HOPES program by presenting the workshop in a diverse set of geographic locations and venues, including  meetings such as those for the National Science Teachers Association and National Association of Biology Teachers. The committee is also collaborating with a professional evaluator to assess the efficacy of the programs supported by the seeds grants, as well as the HOPES program overall. Moreover, the committee is constructing a public interactive network of former recipients, current awardees and potential applicants that will provide a platform for sharing of information, ideas, resources and opportunities. Currently included on this website are project descriptions and activity manuals that can be used by anyone to help enhance the STEM experience for their students.

As a model for improving the K-12 STEM educational experience, five years of the HOPES program has proven an unqualified success. The next five years promise even more.

Click here to see data from the past five years of the HOPES program

 

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.

ASBMB Responds to NIH Request for Comments on Science Education Strategic Planning

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The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has responded to a request for information from the National Institutes of Health regarding strategic planning for the Office of Science Education and the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, both located within the Office of Research Infrastructure Programs.

ASBMB is supportive of the types of programs supported by SEPA that “promote and improve the scientific training of pre-kindergarten to grade 12 (P-12) teachers, students, and the general public.” However, given such a potentially broad scope, we urge NIH to come up with a more-clearly defined mission and distinct goals for the SEPA program, so that its efforts are maximally effective. In addition, given the relatively small budget with which SEPA operates, ASBMB recommends that the SEPA program work with other programs within NIH, as well as external stakeholders within other federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations, to coordinate and streamline overlapping efforts, in order to minimize redundancy.

ASBMB encourages its members to submit their own responses. The RFI is open until March 16, so use this link to submit your own feedback before then.

You can read the full response from ASBMB here.

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.

ASBMB UAN Chapters Awarded Funds to do Outreach

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To paraphrase, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, all outreach is local. In that vein, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee has undertaken a number of initiatives to promote and organize science outreach activities in local communities across the country.

The most recent venture was a novel partnership with the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliates Network, a chapter-based consortium of over 90 institutions. Participation in science outreach is a requirement for individual UAN chapters, so the partnership was a natural fit. But to really spice the pot, the Public Outreach Committee worked with the UAN to develop a grant program that would allow individual chapters to apply for up to $500 to facilitate student participation in outreach activities.

Ultimately, chapters at seven schools were approved for funding this year. Some are continuing programming that they have been part of previously, while some are starting programs anew:

  • HENDRIX COLLEGE: Will bring student presentations and biology tutoring sessions to underserved students at Wonderview High School.
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA: Will conduct molecular biology experiments alongside students from Tampa Preparatory High School. (Chapter link)
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO: Will use amino acid builder kits to teach fundamental concepts in biochemistry to local middle school students from underserved communities.

While this program is only one part of a broader effort to involve ASBMB members in science outreach, the dedication and passion of our undergraduate members are encouraging indicators for success. Even better, participation in these activities will instill an interest in outreach that will (hopefully) endure throughout their careers, wherever they end up.

Read more about the program here.

Paying it Forward: Inspiring the Next Generation

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By Shaila Kotadia (@shpostrapheaila)

Scientists presenting in a classroom can result in lifelong inspiration. During an outreach visit, my colleague, Carley Corrado, demonstrated the awe one could invoke in students. She visited a classroom of 2nd graders and organized an activity to blow up a balloon, stick it in liquid nitrogen, and then pulled it out. Simple enough, but what would happen to the balloon? More importantly, what did the elementary students think would happen? The students all predicted the balloon would pop in the liquid nitrogen and covered their ears in anticipation. Instead, it shrank. When the balloon was pulled out of the cold temperature, it began to grow again and the students stared screaming and could not believe their eyes. They had to touch the balloon to make sure it was real. Afterwards, Carley asked what the students wanted to be when they grew up. In unison, they answered “A scientist!”

A few years before this inspirational moment, Carley and I met one day under the warm California sun. We were both selected as outreach officers of the Women in Science and Engineering organization at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There were opportunities to conduct educational outreach at our current institution but none deeply connected to our respective departments and none aligned with our vision to inspire students in the classroom. Thus, we set out to lead our own outreach project. There were no constraints; just two people who wanted to change the lives of students by showing them the wonderments of science.

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science  students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

Outreach volunteers Keelan Guiley and Carley Corrado with 5th grade Earth Science students at Sacred Heart School in Saratoga, CA

I was motivated by my first outreach experience in graduate school. After another friend and I spoke about our projects and how basic research helps to lead to cures to diseases, one student, wide-eyed and about 12 years old, asked if his whole family was going to get cancer because they were overweight. In that moment, I realized the difference I could make by entering a classroom and just talking about what I do for a living. Carley had been motivated to pursue a scientific career because of the mentors she met along her path to becoming a scientist. She had tremendous gratitude for the advice she had been given. Thus, she wanted to give back and lend her knowledge to inspire a student to find their path like she had.

We set off on our journey, brainstorming ideas for school visits, gathering volunteers, connecting with teachers. Eventually we made it into a few classrooms and tested our set-up. After many visits over several years, our outreach program evolved into a short presentation by each scientist volunteer followed by questions about anything, both professional and personal, from the students and then hands-on activities that promoted inquiry. Through our visits, like the example above, we noticed how we could inspire students to love science as much as we did.

I was also pleasantly surprise by an unintended consequence from our program in that not only did we inspire the young students but also our peers. I was fortunate to have an undergraduate student that I mentored in the lab go on a visit with me. Later, she took on the role as an outreach leader. It was amazing to see her flourish and listen to her stories about her own excitement of running a visit and the excitement the students expressed. It was even better when she moved on to her next position and said she hoped to continue the outreach efforts at her new institution. It was like re-experiencing my first visit to students in graduate school and remembering how it feels to inspire others.