The halls of NIEHS buzzed with teachers and students in July, thanks to institute programs to enhance science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
For the third year, North Carolina teachers participated in the two-week NIEHS Science, Teachers, and Research Summer Institute (STaRS). In addition, two groups of Wake County teachers spent a day at the institute through the Wake Education Partnership SummerSTEM professional development experience.
Students are spending the summer gaining laboratory experience through the NIEHS Scholars Connect program (NSCP) for undergraduates, and the National Institutes of Health Summer Internship Program for high school and college students.
Strategic planning for a diverse scientific workforce
The programs align with NIEHS strategic plan goals of building a diverse scientific workforce and strengthening science education. Ericka Reid, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED), which sponsored the efforts, pointed out that diversity refers to scientific specialties as well as racial and ethnic backgrounds.
“You’ll meet scientists from various walks of STEM education — not only biology and chemistry, but also epidemiology, toxicology, neuroscience, and the list goes on,” Reid said during the STaRS program. “Med school is not the only option if you’re good in science.”
Teachers gain insights to current research
Huei-Chen Lao, from OSED, coordinates STaRS, which is co-sponsored with North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research (NCABR). “I work with the lab presenters so they understand problem-based learning and the Next Generation Science Standards, two important practices in science education,” she said. The program concluded with teachers presenting lesson plans they had developed, inspired by what they learned.
The teachers gave glowing reviews again this year. “I realized there were at least 50 people involved in sharing with us, teaching us, helping us. I call this generosity and I know it is rare, and for this, I humbly thank you,” wrote Mirela Risden, who teaches at Nash Rocky Mount Early College High School.
Scientists from twelve research groups offered lab rotation opportunities to the Wake County teachers. Each teacher rotated through two different labs where researchers demonstrated their work and offered hands-on experiences. In one, Bart Phillips, Ph.D., a trainee in the lab of Traci Hall, Ph.D., was asked about the impact of his research. He seized the opportunity to explain the larger implications for the fields of fertility and chemotherapy.
For all teachers, labs were complemented by presentations on NIEHS programs. A Wake County teacher reflected on the environmental justice session. “Now I realize how connected it is to issues [the kids] will be concerned with. I can make it personal for them.” Others applauded the excellent care of research animals that they observed and said it would change the nature of their classroom discussions.
Students gain practical research experience
NSCP, coordinated by Reid, is hosting three scholars this year, for a paid internship that allows the students to continue their lab work part-time during the school year. Debbie Wilson, from the Division of Intramural Research, coordinates the more than 40 summer interns from high schools and colleges.
Both NSCP scholars and interns designed and conducted experiments, then analyzed and interpreted the data. In the midst of that work, they attended seminars, gave scientific presentations, and prepared and explained posters of their projects.
Fourteen students accepted a challenge to present their research July 22 as part of the popular Big Picture, Small Talk series. They gave impressive plain-language summaries of their work, many without using notes. Their poise, enthusiasm, and sharp minds posed a challenge for the panel of volunteer judges, who arrived at a three-way tie for the winning talk (see photo).
Gratitude for a job well done
Reid, Lao, and Wilson each thanked those from across the institute who took time from their regular duties to participate in the summer programs. Participants also expressed deep appreciation.
“I am so overwhelmed with the amount of support you have given to a teacher,” said Leslie Schoof, from Madison Early College High School in Mars Hill, North Carolina.