Exporting the latest & most relevant science from our labs into high schools
Editor's note: This is one of a series of stories from Ideation magazine on the various STEM-outreach initiatives at William & Mary, programs that reach out beyond the walls of campus to increase understanding and appreciation of the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math.
Every summer since 1999, a number of high school biology teachers gather in the labs and classrooms of William & Mary’s Integrated Science Center to work with and discuss the latest advances in research with the College’s biologists.
“What we do is choose a topic that is highly relevant in society, but that also could be used in the classroom,” explains Margaret Saha, “but the primary goal really is to excite the teachers about the new modern science that’s going on.”
Saha, the Chancellor Professor of Biology at William & Mary, has coordinated these sessions from the beginning. The summer updates have been funded through four consecutive grants to William & Mary from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
“I am pleased that William and Mary is using part of its HHMI grant to work with science teachers,” said David J. Asai, director of precollege and undergraduate science education programs at HHMI. “It's more than just ‘giving back.’ The attention to K-12 teacher professional development is essential to ensure the vitality of science in this nation.”
As many as 20 high school biology teachers have attended each of the five-day summer update courses, but Saha says she prefers to keep the enrollment to a dozen or so, “just so we can give them a lot of one-to-one and hands-on experience,” she added.
“These courses just get rave reviews every year,” Saha says. “In fact, teachers from last year already have asked to be placed on the waiting list for this year’s course. They love the fact that a practicing scientist would take the time to deal with teachers.”
Teachers can take experiments back
Each session focuses on a current, cutting-edge topic in biology. The participants are given copies of papers from the current scientific literature and a relevant book. The centerpiece is a series of experiments that the teachers can take back to their own classrooms. The most recent experiment deals with the effects of pollutants on the development of embryos. Because of its relevance, the course attracted a wide range of interest, Saha said.
“This is a topic that is really hot right now because it deals with the effects of certain chemicals—teratogens, endocrine disrupters—on animal embryos,” she explained. “So it really drew in everyone who was interested in ecology and conservation biology. These pesticides that we are using freely in the environment, things that we flush down our toilet, all the antidepressant drugs that end up in local streams—they’re affecting the wildlife in the terrestrial environment.”
Saha explained that the high school teachers exposed frog embryos and sea urchin embryos to low doses of mercury and other common environmental pollutants, and then analyzed the effects of the substances on the development of the embryos.
“The teachers got to see live organisms develop, do a controlled experiment in the classroom, use molecular techniques, and integrate it with this new field—in this case, ecological development biology,” she said.
The HHMI funding allows the updates to be presented at no cost to the high school teachers..All print materials and lab supplies are provided for teachers who want to take the experiment back home to their own labs to share with their students.
The summer update experience carries graduate credit for the teachers, some of whotravel from hours away. Saha says teachers regularly come from schools in Richmond, Hampton and Suffolk. There’s a steady North Carolina contingent, as well.
Teachers keep coming back
Other teachers, including Emil Davis of Bruton High School outside Williamsburg, come back almost every year—sometimes twice, as there are years in which two summer updates are offered. The returnees are drawn by the variety as well as the quality of the programs. A large proportion of the William & Mary biology faculty have taught at least one summer update course, ensuring a topical mix that, year to year, ranges from molecular biology to ornithology to genetics to entomology.
“I learn something new every summer that I can attend,” Davis said. “I’ve had to miss a few which is always unfortunate, but I learn a lot and I bring something back to my classroom from every course. And I get to associate with the professors.”
Davis is a 1985 biology graduate of William & Mary. He said the summer updates have been so consistently valuable that it’s a challenge to cite any particular session as particularly valuable.
“All of them were great,” he said, “One of the first update courses was one with (emeritus professor) Stan Hoegerman covering genetics. We smashed onion cells and stained them to see chromosomes. We also did some karyotyping.”
Karyotyping is a relatively sophisticated process for identifying and arranging chromosome pairs in the nucleus of a cell. Davis explained that his students study the chromosomes in onion root tips and they also simulate an actual karyotype in his Bruton High lab.
“We cut out pictures of chromosomes and line them up,” Davis explained. “We use them to talk about the inheritance of genetic disorders."
More often, though, Davis and the other summer update participants are able to bring back all the necessary equipment, supplies and knowledge to their classrooms and labs—enhancements made possible by the HHMI funding— so their students can do the very same experiment. Davis said his students have been particularly inspired by being able to conduct gel electrophoresis, the use of an electric field to “sieve” and sort DNA molecules. More recently, Davis had his high school class analyze plasmid constructs that were being used in William and Mary research labs—something really exciting for the students.
Teachers spend summer in the labs
The college and high school faculty members involved in the summer updates have found that their common interest in life sciences transcend the difference in instructional level. Davis and other high school biology teachers now regularly send promising students to William & Mary during the summer to get some real lab experience. Saha notes that the students all receive a stipend, again thanks to the HHMI support.
The high school teachers also found that they were welcome in the William & Mary labs, not only as visitors but also as collaborators.