Ten teachers enjoyed an interactive, hands-on experience in environmental and biomedical research July 10-21, as part of the NIEHS Science, Teachers, and Research Summer Experience (STaRS). The program combines laboratory work, environmental health science talks by researchers from NIEHS and elsewhere, and the challenge of developing a classroom project based on the experience.
Their students will reap the benefits as they learn about career options and current topics in environmental health research. Suman Kirti teaches science to students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, at Star Academy in Lillington, North Carolina. "I have a lot to show [my students]," she said. "It's going to open a magical world for them."
Sponsored by the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED), in collaboration with the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research (NCABR), STaRS draws high school science teachers from across North Carolina.
Diverse schools fit well
Participants represented schools that serve students who are at risk or who are already involved with the juvenile justice system, as well as rural, urban, magnet, and charter schools. That variety is a good fit for STaRS, according to OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D.
"Environmental health science is highly interdisciplinary," Reid told the participants. "We want to reach people from all walks of life, different backgrounds, and different disciplines, so that [in our research] we are asking more of the right questions."
Science on a classroom budget
Lead organizer Huei-Chen Lao, Ph.D., pointed out that STaRS fosters close contact with working scientists from NIEHS and other organizations.
For instance, the group toured Biogen, a nearby biotechnology company that develops therapies for neurological and autoimmune diseases. The teachers saw first-hand how basic research is translated into drug discovery.
Tom Randall, from Triangle DIY Biology, stopped by to demonstrate a kit for gel electrophoresis, made with inexpensive and easy-to-find materials that the teachers can use in their classrooms.
The glow of success
A highlight for many of the teachers was the laboratory research project led by NIEHS fellows and scientists. Each participant completed the steps necessary to transform bacterial cells with plasmid DNA, a small, circular molecule that can make copies of itself.
Depending on the foreign DNA inserted into the plasmid, the bacterial cells glowed red, green, or yellow — a sort of neon sign telling whether the complex, multi-day process succeeded.
When asked about their experience at STaRS, the teachers were enthusiastic. Two of the ten had participated in other NCABR programs at NIEHS. "I always come to the workshops here," said Kendra Faries, who teaches biomedical technology at Scotland High School in Laurinburg.
Lao was equally enthusiastic about the teachers, noting that the 10 were selected from a pool of 64 applicants. "This is an awesome group — so motivated, quick learners, and unafraid of challenges," she said.