Photo by Dean Forbes
Greg Ballog's job: Make science so exciting, hands-on and relevant for his high-school students that they'll thirst for more. Then maybe the kids will study instead of playing Xbox and tune into their biology texts instead of MTV. His budget for this feat? Just $5 per student per year. Luckily, the South Whidbey High School teacher found an ally in the Center's Science Education Partnership (SEP). Now in its 16th year, SEP has helped Ballog and more than 337 other Washington secondary science teachers stretch their horizons and classroom potential through its award-winning professional development program.
"Next to fruit flies, SEP is one of the best resources available," said Ballog, who got involved in the program five years ago and now serves as a lead teacher for SEP participants. "For my students, the equipment and opportunities the Center provides are invaluable. Our school's budget would not allow us to do the labs that SEP makes possible."
This year, 34 teachers have come from as far away as Yakima, Okanogan and Vancouver to participate. One of the program's highlights is a 13-day summer workshop, which began July 10 and concludes next week. During the summer session, the teachers work closely with each other, lead teachers and SEP staff to gain skills and expertise in molecular biology. They also spend a week doing hands-on work with a scientist-mentor in a laboratory. During the school year, teachers use SEP materials and attend workshops on topics like grant writing and bioinformatics.
Labs for loan
The SEP's science-kit loan program provides a major reward for teachers participating in the yearlong program — enabling them to share hands-on laboratory experiences with students. The kits, which cost up to $10,000 each and are assembled and maintained at the Center, contain all of the equipment necessary for DNA extraction, micropipetting, bacterial transformation and other classroom experimentation. Last year, more than 12,000 students used SEP kits and supplies in their science classes.
"In some schools, if they didn't have us, they wouldn't have DNA labs," said Deanna Stelling, SEP's operations manager, who stocks and keeps tracks of the kits. "I like seeing teachers have what they need to be most effective."
"The kids really like the kits, and they enjoy knowing that scientists use the same stuff they see on TV," said Mike Fellows, a teacher at Pierce County's Lakewood High School and an SEP lead teacher since 1998. "Even for kids for whom science isn't their thing, they really get into it."
Fellows also credits SEP for fostering excitement and changes in schools where teachers have gone through the training. The program, he said, sparks innovative ideas and transforms teaching, which in turn can capture students' imagination and ignite a passion for science. "The ripple effects go on and on," Fellows said.
Dr. Nancy Hutchison, director of the program since its inception, said that while the summer session is the most visible portion of the program, it isn't SEP's ultimate focus. "Our goal is to establish long-term partnerships between teachers and the scientific research community," she said. "There is a great need to connect teachers and scientists. It doesn't get fixed or done — it's an ongoing need. My greatest joy is seeing teachers connect with the scientists and feel like they belong here."
Mentor-scientists play a huge role in forming relationships with the participating teachers. Center scientists volunteer, along with researchers from partner institutions, including biotechnology firms Amgen and ZymoGenetics, as well as Pacific Northwest Research Institute, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Institute for Systems Biology, Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, and the University of Washington Genome Sciences Department. The mentor relationships often extend past the summer session to include high-school classroom visits by the scientists.
The mentors also come from the joint UW/Hutchinson Center Molecular and Cellular Biology doctoral-research program. Through the 10-year-old program, 12 graduate students elect to work with SEP as one of their two teaching requirements, giving them an opportunity to strengthen their ability to share their passion for science with the public.
The scientists offer a variety of reasons for volunteering, according to Penny Pagels, who runs the teacher workshops as SEP's science education manager. "Our mentors say they like to teach or feel a duty to give back," she said. "Many say a science teacher influenced them, so they'd like to do that for somebody else. For some, it's rejuvenating. They can take a big step back and look at their research with fresh eyes." SEP also provides teachers with surplus lab supplies donated by research labs, a resource library with the latest teaching tools, a $500 stipend and graduate-level credit through the UW.
The program — which receives direct financial support from the Center, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Amgen Foundation — began taking shape in the 1980s out of a sense of need. Hutchison, then a Center postdoc, gave scientific talks to teachers through the Pacific Science Center.
"I got the sense that teachers were not being exposed to the biotechnology revolution. They wanted to see and then use the equipment, and then they wanted that for their students," she said.
After hosting informal workshops for teachers at the Center for several years, Hutchison gained a sense of what type of program would be most useful and helpful for educators. The first official year of SEP — 1991 — brought 10 teachers to the Center.
Inquiry – based science
"The enthusiasm around the Center for this was pretty impressive," Hutchison said. "Between years one and two, there were scientists all over town interested and wanting to be involved, which evolved into partner sites."
Hutchison left her research pursuits to head the program in 1994. "This work was very rewarding and immediate, and it seemed to be touching all of these teachers plus their students in a catalytic way," she said. Since its inception, SEP has influenced the lives of more than 150,000 students.
For Ballog, it's worth giving up some of his summer break for a chance to revitalize his life's work. "I enjoy the opportunity to recharge during the summer with a group of dedicated teachers. Afterward, I am enthused about developing improvements to my lessons," he said. "SEP has become an integral part of my curriculum. Some of the practices I first learned through the program are now a daily part of my classes."
The SEP staff enjoys the role they play in helping teachers offer strong science education, not just for the students who will pursue scientific careers, but so all students are better prepared to problem solve and think creatively.
"We are a hotline for inquiry — based science, and having that kind of resource increases the confidence levels of the teachers," Pagels said. "I love empowering teachers so they know how valuable they are."