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November 2011

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NIH issues LAB Challenge for K-12

By Ashley Godfrey
November 2011

Banalata (Bono) Sen, Ph.D.

Sen, a former postdoc at the EPA, joined the EHP staff in 2009. Her office also sponsors the EHP Teacher Professional Development Workshop, which is offered every summer here at the NIEHS (see story( This workshop continues to receive very positive reviews from both the teachers who come to learn, as well as the trainees who help develop the environmentally themed, hands-on lesson plans for the teachers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

far right, science rapper Zach Charlop-Powers hands on demonstration

In the video made by NIH to help promote the challenge, science rapper Zach Charlop-Powers demonstrates how much fun extracting DNA from strawberries can be. This simple, hands-on experiment is exactly what the NIH LAB Challenge is eager to bring to K-12 classrooms everywhere. (Image courtesy of NIH)

As the Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) Education and Outreach Program manager, Banalata (Bono) Sen, Ph.D., is one of 12 NIH committee members issuing a groundbreaking, nationwide science education challenge. The NIH Lessons About Bioscience (LAB) Challenge( Exit NIEHS is asking everyone for help in bringing hands-on science into K-12 classrooms through online submissions of innovative classroom-ready experiments by its Dec. 1 deadline.

Introducing kids to the joys of science

Sen is a member of the Science Education Resource Group (SERG), a committee composed of members representing all the NIH institutes and centers, which is issuing this exciting science education challenge. The goal of this challenge is to get students excited about science, by providing teachers with a convenient collection of engaging, inexpensive, and hands-on fun experiments that can be conducted in any classroom.

The committee is specifically looking for experiments that:

  • Are geared toward grades K-12
  • Use safe, easily available, inexpensive materials
  • Take 90 minutes (or less) of class time
  • Have a clear learning objective (a statement that describes the knowledge or skills that a student should be able to obtain following the science experimental procedure)
  • Are related to the NIH mission of health and life sciences

The idea for the challenge came from a conversation between NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. During National Lab Day last year, Collins taught a hands-on experiment to a group of high school students, using strawberries to extract DNA, and was impressed with how engaged the students were. He described the activity in a meeting with Duncan, who responded by asking whether Collins could come up with 99 more hands-on experiments for students in kindergarten through high school. SERG picked up the idea and began working to fill the void.

Creating a 24/7 archive for teachers and parents everywhere

SERG plans on recruiting both teachers and scientists to help pick the top entries out of all of the submissions it receives. “We hope to be able to actually try out all of the experiments ourselves to see how well they work,” Sen said. The committee is especially excited about seeing what new and imaginative submissions will come in, since the challenge is open to experiments on any health and life science topic.

All of the winning experiments chosen by the committee will be compiled as part of the NIH collection of the best experimental procedures. This collection will be available worldwide for free in print, online, and on mobile devices from the NIH Office of Science Education( Exit NIEHS. Participants whose submissions are picked to be part of the final collection will be recognized by publication of their names and organizations along with their experiments, and they will receive an official winner's badge they can proudly display on social media sites and websites.

“We would love to see submissions from the NIEHS covering any topic related to environmental health,” stated Carla L. Easter, Ph.D., science education specialist at the National Human Genome Research Institute( Exit NIEHS and lead of the LAB Challenge.

Bringing environmental health news to the public

As a member of the National Science Teachers Association, Sen has access to a large listserve of teachers. During the planning phase of the LAB Challenge she took advantage of her network of educators to help review the submission application and make sure the result will be easily adapted for use by any teacher in any type of classroom. As manager of the EHP Education and Outreach Program, one of Sen's many goals is to bring environmental health information to the public as part of the total NIEHS outreach effort (see text box).

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Environmental health is not usually a part of classroom curriculum, so what Sen has done with her program is to take EHP content and create new grade-appropriate lesson plans. “What we are trying to do is connect the students with real-world examples, so they can learn about the connection between their health and their environment,” explained Sen.

(Ashley Godfrey, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in the Molecular and Genetic Epidemiology Group in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Carcinogenesis.)

NIEHS and EHP science education and outreach efforts

Increased awareness of the importance of science education and outreach is being felt throughout the entire Institute. Along with Sen, Ericka Reid, Ph.D., education outreach specialist in the NIEHS Office of Science Education(, has been instrumental in connecting NIEHS trainees with many exciting science education and outreach opportunities. Planning is currently underway by a group of NIEHS postdocs to develop an environmentally themed curriculum to be taught in the spring to middle school students enrolled in the Citizen Schools( Exit NIEHS after school program at Lowe's Grove Middle School in Durham, N.C.

“The Citizen Schools program will give us [postdoc fellows] the opportunity to create and teach a ten-week curriculum focused on human health and the environment,” explained Nisha Cavanaugh Ph.D., who is leading the group of postdocs involved. “At the same time, we can get middle school students from low-income communities excited about math and science, and encourage them to consider pursuing biomedical careers.”

Workshops and presentations sponsored by the EHP Education and Outreach Program include:

  • North American Association for Environmental Education, Oct 12 -15, 2011, Raleigh, NC - EHP presentations on “Environmental Health Education Resources and Programs for Students and Educators”; “Climate Change Matters: A Human Health Perspective”; and “Teaching Climate Change: Evaluation of Two Non-traditional Programs,” a joint presentation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
  • National Science Teachers Association National Conference, March 29-April 1 2012, in Indianapolis - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/U.S. Forest Service/NIEHS Symposium: Climate Change Here and Now: Communicating and Teaching About Climate Change
  • EPA-NIEHS “High School Student Workshop on Climate Change,” summer 2012, at the EPA in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
  • EHP Teacher Professional Development Workshop, summer 2012, NIEHS

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