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Environmental Factor, January 2012

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Grantee honored by association of science teachers

Kathleen Vandiver, Ph.D., presenting her plaque, standing with Thomas Vaughn and Marilyn Richardson

Shown, left to right, Thomas Vaughn, head and chair of Massachusetts Hall of Fame for Science Educators, joined Vandiver and Richardson at the presentation. (Photo courtesy of Kim Vandiver)

NIEHS grantee Kathleen Vandiver, Ph.D., became a member of the Massachusetts Hall of Fame for Science Educators during the annual conference of the Massachusetts Association of Science Teachers in November 2011. The award honors Vandiver’s more than 20 years of significant contributions to Massachusetts science education.

Vandiver is co-director of community outreach and education core for the NIEHS-funded Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  Massachusetts Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS). Vandiver’s programs help to create engaging ways to teach abstract scientific concepts, such as molecular genetics, with models made from LEGO bricks.

“Kathy has done an excellent job of using the LEGO kit to help students and teachers understand the links between environmental exposures and human health,” said NIEHS Program Analyst Liam O’Fallon. “It is a truly engaging approach that makes CEHS education and outreach more effective.”

Appealing to the senses to communicate abstract concepts

“It isn't just that I make models,” said Vandiver, who taught sixth-grade science in Lexington, Mass., from 1990 to 2005. “What's different is I design the projects so that the models and lessons intrinsically emphasize the key concepts instead of all the details. And it's helpful for students to engage with the point of the lesson in a tactile, memorable way.”

Vandiver continues to explore how to make abstract concepts clear to students. A recent exhibit in the MIT Museum, Learning Lab: The Cell, used LEGO bricks put together by the participants to emphasize the connection between DNA and health.

Watch as manipulating magnetized LEGOS demonstrates the structure and function of DNA (01:01).


In an MIT Edgerton Center project, funded in part by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and supported by CEHS, Vandiver is currently collaborating with the Boston public schools system’s science department to pilot the hands-on LEGO DNA curriculum in biology classes, and to provide teacher professional development sessions and classroom support. The project, which began in May 2010, was implemented last spring and continues this year. The materials are very popular with teachers and students, especially English as a Second Language students.

Marilyn Richardson, a teacher who nominated Vandiver, first met her at an MIT CEHS teacher summer workshop in 2007. Richardson said, “I hadn't taught life science in many years, and working with the LEGO kits helped me refocus on biological issues and helped me do a better job of teaching.” Sixth-graders and AP biology students alike are picking up the concepts, as well as adult learners such as nurses and engineers, corroborating that the models embody universal design principles. Different LEGO sets have been created to address the fundamentals in DNA, proteins, protein synthesis, cell division and chromosomes, and chemical reactions such as photosynthesis.

Vandiver said she was pleased to be recognized for creating tools for hands-on learning, and noted there are many worthy and deserving teachers in Massachusetts, whose work CEHS appreciates and wishes to honor.

(This story was adapted from a Dec. 8 MIT news release by Debbie Levey, an editor at the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.)

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