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Environmental Factor

Environmental Factor

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December 2016

Local high school turns to NIEHS for help developing magnet curriculum

NIEHS has enjoyed a strong relationship with educational institutions for decades, and this year represented a huge step forward for its Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED).

This spring, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) contacted NIEHS for support in transitioning Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, North Carolina, into a magnet school with a theme in medical sciences and global health initiatives. Like the system’s other magnet schools, the Athens Drive Center for Medical Sciences and Global Health Initiatives will draw students from throughout the county.

NIEHS hosted a workshop for all of the school’s ninth grade teachers Sept. 30, and a more intensive workshop Nov. 21 for a group of eleven teachers. In addition, OSED has scheduled a symposium next May, in collaboration with WakeEd Partnership for teachers and students from 48 Wake County Schools. Athens Drive teachers were also encouraged to apply to participate in a day-long human genetic variation workshop in February, co-sponsored by NIEHS and the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research.

“This is the first time we’ve done something this deeply involved,” said Huei-Chen Lao, Ph.D., K-12 Science Education and Outreach Coordinator. “We’re not just talking about single teachers [from a variety of schools] attending a workshop. We’re talking about helping all the teachers in a specific school, with the ultimate goal of improving students’ learning and their 21st century skills, such as communication, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving.”

OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D., explained, as she welcomed participants to the November workshop, that NIEHS is committed to enhancing science education and professional development. That commitment is embodied in Goals 8 and 9 of the NIEHS Strategic Plan.

An interdisciplinary approach to collaboration

In designing the workshops, NIEHS and Wake County educators made a concerted effort to meet educational standards, including those set by the North Carolina Standard Course of Study, Next Generation Science Standards, and the Common Core Curriculum.

These standards cover discipline-specific content, while reflecting the great variety of abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels that are essential in all disciplines. For Athens Drive, meeting these standards involves teachers in earth science, mathematics, English, world history, healthful living, and career technical education.

The Sept. 30 workshop was a half-day event that included a tour of NIEHS and an introduction to the basics of biomedical sciences and global health. The full-day workshop Nov. 21 included presentations on the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) response to the 2014 Ebola crisis and environmental contamination issues with arsenic and lead.

The participants also joined in a three-part, problem-solving exercise. In keeping with the interdisciplinary theme of magnet education, the teachers on each team represented subjects from across the ninth grade curriculum.

The teachers, who were encouraged to consider ways to incorporate workshop content into their respective classes, gave the presenters and facilitators high marks in their enthusiastic evaluations of the workshop (see sidebar).

“This was great,” said Athens Drive Magnet Coordinator Tonya Hinton. “All of the teachers were participating, and talk about workshop themes continued over lunch and during breaks.”

(Eddy Ball, Ph.D., is a contract writer with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)


Institute-wide collaboration

In addition to Lao, Reid, and Special Assistant John Schelp, presenters and facilitators included NIEHS and National Toxicology (NTP) Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., and scientists from the institute’s labs, grants programs, and NTP.

  • NTP Health Scientist Abee Boyles, Ph.D.
  • Signal Transduction Laboratory Staff Scientist Ron Cannon, Ph.D.
  • Superfund Research Program Health Scientist Administrator Heather Henry, Ph.D.
  • USPHS Commander Debra King, who was deployed to Liberia during the Ebola crisis to provide clinical support.
  • Epigenetics and Stem Cell Biology Laboratory Postdoctoral Fellow Kat McCann, Ph.D.
  • Protein Expression Core Facility Director Bob Petrovich, Ph.D.

Boyles, Lao, McCann, and Petrovich facilitated the problem-solving groups. Their topics included soil and bioavailability, with a focus on the Flint, Michigan water crisis; the impact of climate change on human health; and the effects of human genetic variation on personalized medicine and individual responses to environmental exposures.

The first workshop took place as a part of early release staff development. For the second, Wake County provided funds to pay substitute teachers. NIEHS contributed instruction and planning resources, with introductions to relevant National Institutes of Health curriculum guides, an NIEHS curriculum on global climate change now in development, and other web-based resources.

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