Fifty science teachers from across North Carolina took part in two NIEHS workshops in February. Organizers Huei-Chen Lao, Ph.D., from the NIEHS Office of Science Education and Diversity (OSED), and Regina Williams, program director for the North Carolina Association for Biomedical Research (NCABR), highlighted problem-based learning approaches.
Scientists and professionals from NCABR, NIEHS, and the National Toxicology Program (NTP) collaborated on the daylong workshops, which were the latest in a 22-year partnership between NIEHS and NCABR. “By working together, the teachers get up-to-date scientific training, and our scientists learn more about effective ways to communicate their research with the public,” Lao pointed out.
Concepts students can touch
At the Feb. 10 session on human genetic variation, OSED Director Ericka Reid, Ph.D., explained that part of the NIEHS strategic plan involves helping to train the next generation of environmental health scientists. Following Reid’s welcome, Kathleen Vandiver, Ph.D., from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led a hands-on session.
Vandiver developed the MIT Edgerton Center DNA and Protein Sets, which help students understand and retain the abstract concepts of genetic mutations, and DNA replication, transcription, and translation. She directs the Community Outreach and Education Core at the NIEHS-funded MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences.
Sounds of discovery filled the room as educators built and manipulated three-dimensional models of biomolecules that many of their students experience only in two-dimensional textbook representations.
“You can tell how successful these workshops are by the fact that we had more than 70 teachers on the waiting list,” Lao said. “Every year we hear from the teachers that there’s nothing else quite like this available.”
Taking it back to the classroom
Teachers valued the workshop’s real-world applications of scientific principles, according to comments received later. The approach helped teachers make connections with their students that extend beyond their classrooms.
For Lao, this is precisely the goal of these outreach efforts. “We want to support a classroom environment so that students understand that science is a part of life, rather than a fact set to be memorized,” she said.
The hands-on time complemented classroom resources on human genetic variation, presented by Mike Humble, Ph.D., from the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.
Visual, hands-on learning
The second workshop, with a different group of teachers, focused on chemicals in the environment and human health. Sessions on botanical dietary supplements and bioavailability of heavy metals illustrated the point that the environment ranges from food and medication, to chemicals in water, soil, and air.
Bioavailability expresses how much of a substance, such as arsenic, the body would absorb if exposed through skin, ingestion, or inhalation. The extent of bioavailability affects the risk presented by contaminants in, for example, Superfund sites. Instructors included Pamela Lovin of NCABR; Cynthia Rider, Ph.D., from NTP; and Heather Henry, Ph.D., with the NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP).
Two types of peppermint candies represented variations in bioavailability, in a clever exercise presented by Dana Brown Haine, from the University of North Carolina (UNC) SRP Center Research Translation Core. The UNC and University of Arizona SRPs developed the exercise to explain bioavailability to communities near contaminated sites.
Haine prompted participants to brainstorm ways to use the lesson in their classrooms, where they teach subjects including math, environmental science, health sciences, biology, and more. Suggestions included a class on genes and variations, exploration of soil and human impacts on soil, and biology lessons, including pregnancy, epigenetics, and phytoremediation, which means using plants to absorb contaminants in soil or water.
Lao said that in evaluations, some teachers commented on the affordability and cost-effectiveness of the workshops. The collaboration between NIEHS and NCABR helped eliminate some of the cost barriers teachers face in staying up-to-date with biomedical research.
(David Banks is a postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award fellow in the NIEHS Receptor Biology Group.)