Ten North Carolina teachers got an up-close and hands-on experience of environmental health research at NIEHS July 9-20. The institute’s Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED) offers the two-week immersion program each summer to high school science teachers around the state.
Known as the Science, Teachers, and Research Summer (STaRS) Institute, the professional development workshop is a collaboration between NIEHS and the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research.
“We get them into the lab working on a biomedical research project the very first day,” said Huei-Chen Lee, Ph.D., OSED coordinator for the workshop. Through STaRS, educators gain an understanding of environmental health science, research, and career opportunities.
“It’s great to see how what we teach is applied here in the labs,” said Joey Risso, from Asheboro High School in Asheboro, North Carolina. “I’m amazed at what [the scientists] here can do.”
Robert Petrovich, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Protein Expression Facility in the Structural Biology Core Laboratory, guides the teachers through the lab work and plays a key role in the workshop overall. “A key part of what they learn is the importance of what we do here at NIEHS,” he said.
Participants discussed a wide range of environmental health and other contemporary science topics with fellows, lead researchers, and grants managers from all divisions of the institute.
The varied list of topics included inflammation, how cancer spreads in the body, how cells with the same DNA develop into different tissues and organs, the role of genetic variation in disease, and the humane care and use of animals in research.
Lee broadened the program’s offerings by involving organizations beyond NIEHS.
- Tom Randall, Ph.D., from Triangle DIY Biology, showed how to conduct experiments using materials from local grocery and hardware stores.
- A half-day visit to nearby Biogen offered a close-up view of drug development and career options in biotechnology.
- North Carolina State University researcher Rodolphe Barrangou, Ph.D., detailed the rapidly developing field of gene editing, which uses the technique known as CRISPR.
- Immaculata Catholic School science teacher Karen Clark shared her teaching of science ethics and animal research to seventh graders.
Taking it back to students
A key focus of STaRS is to enable the educators to transfer their discoveries and insights back to their classrooms for the benefit of students, including those from underserved populations.
To that end, the program’s agenda provided time to develop lesson plans. On the last day of the workshop, participants presented their designs for new learning experiences to an NIEHS audience.
STaRS is designed to encourage the same critical thinking that the teachers help their students develop, according to Lee. “The goal of this workshop is not to feed teachers information,” she said, explaining the thinking behind a new session in which the educators designed a scientific investigation.
“Teachers come into the context of a research institution, we provide them tools and the training of how to use these tools, and ask them how they would apply these tools to their teaching,” Lee said. The educators rose to the challenge, developing a rich variety of learning units to take into their classrooms this fall.