Perspectives Online

Ripple Effect - In a summer course, high-school teachers sharpen their laboratory research skills — and take the tools back to their schools to inspire future scientists. By Terri Leith

CALS alumna Katie Monroe will share her lab experiences with her biology students at Durham School of the Arts. Photo by Marc Hall

It’s July at N.C. State University, and a lot of construction work is going on as a new wing is completed at Polk Hall, the historic home of the departments of Animal Science and Molecular and Structural Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Meanwhile, in a lab deep in Polk’s basement, there’s quieter work in progress, as five high-school science teachers participate in a summer class to enhance their laboratory skills. And like the ripples from a stone tossed in calm water, the lessons they take from that lab will soon reach their students.

Taught by Dr. Robert Rose, CALS associate professor of molecular and structural biochemistry, the three-week lab class grew out of a National Science Foundation grant – the Faculty Early Career Development Program award — won by Rose in 2007. The award is designed to enhance science education as well as fund research.

The course is a result of collaboration between the CALS Molecular and Structural Biochemistry Department and the Math, Science and Technology Education Department of the College of Education. It has also been supported by CALS dean Dr. Johnny Wynne, Dr. Steve Lommel of the N.C. Agricultural Research Service and Dr. Robert J. Beichner, head of the university’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative.

The lab class offers an inquiry-based approach to research – that is, hands-on participation as opposed to lecture-based learning. “The class is an intensive course, five hours per day from July 8 to July 28,” says Rose. “Our goal is to enhance teachers’ laboratory skills and to promote labs and inquiry in high schools.”

Teachers can earn professional development credit or science credit toward an education master’s degree.

“There are a lot of easier ways to acquire professional development credits,” Rose says. “I’ve been very impressed with the devotion and enthusiasm of the teachers. This experience has also made me aware of the difficulties facing teachers, including lack of equipment and time to develop labs.”

Rose sees the class as “a great opportunity for the teachers, because it affords them the time and equipment to develop laboratory skills. They often don’t have time with their teaching loads to work on developing their own lab skills. The class also provides teachers access to expertise, giving them a chance to have their questions answered.”

Dr. Robert Rose (on left) confers with Enloe High School teacher Jason Wolfe, as Monroe and Garner Senior High teacher Martha Lawrence (in background) perform a molecular biology experiment.
Photo by Marc Hall
Teachers who have taken the class also will be able to borrow equipment to use in their schools.

“They can borrow the major pieces of equipment that we bought for the lab, such as the microcentrifuge, burners, incubator, pipettes and thermocycler,” says Rose. “They also requested use of some disposable items: pipette tips, Petri dishes, cell spreaders, conical tubes, inoculating loops and parafilm. Some teachers also asked for plasmids that they could use in their labs.”

The specific course objectives include developing teachers’ basic laboratory skills in molecular biology, developing labs for their own classrooms, exploring the role of creativity in science and promoting inquiry in the classroom.

Says Rose, “The overall class was based on one theme — to introduce the jellyfish gene, egfp (green fluorescent protein) into E coli and express it.”

The labs were a modification of a biotechnology course taught by Dr. Sue Carson, professor of plant biology and academic coordinator of the NCSU Biotechnology Program, Rose says.

“Teachers learned the basics of molecular biology, including growing E coli cultures, manipulating plasmids and expressing the efgp gene. We also introduced several labs based on techniques we though would excite students,” he says.

For example, teachers measured the mutation rate in E coli and the development of resistance to an antibiotic, rifampicin.

“This lab allowed the teachers to get practice in plating E coli, to think about how many E coli there are in a cell culture and how we can measure that, and to think about how antibiotics work” says Rose, adding that the teachers also considered “the development of antibiotic resistance — a problem in human health — and how UV can cause mutations.”

During the final week of their session, five teachers are engrossed in lab work in 41 Polk Hall.

“Right now we’re loading DNA from our cheek cells — which we PCR’ed yesterday into agarose gels — to look for a specific gene,” explains Jason Wolfe, who teaches grades nine through 12 biology, genetics and microbiology at Raleigh’s Enloe High School.

Wolfe is describing the group’s experiment in collecting their own cheek cells with a cotton swab, extracting their DNA and then identifying a polymorphic region by polymerase chain reaction, an automated process that enables the production of millions of copies of a DNA sequence. Rose notes that the polymorphic region, the VNTR, is variable enough that it’s used by the FBI to genetically “fingerprint” people.

“This is a lab we could do with high-school students,” says Wolfe.

Wolfe’s Enloe colleague Kalyani Tawade, who teaches biology and physical science to ninth through 12th graders, says, “This lab will enable me to make more exciting labs for students, to provide hands-on learning and more lab experiences related to real life and to get them excited about science courses for college.”

Katie Monroe, a CALS zoology alumna who teaches 10th grade biology at Durham School of the Arts, says, “It’s been really great for me to get practical lab experiences in biochemistry. This class is going to help me lead my students through labs that are more meaningful.”

Working beside her is Martha Lawrence, Garner Senior High School teacher of ninth and 10th grade biology and 11th and 12th grade International Baccalaureate biology. “I was really intimidated by lab experiences before,” says Lawrence, “but now I feel confident and comfortable taking it back to my students.”

Brian Wood is equally eager to share the experiences with his students. Taking the lab class was part of “getting back into microbiology lab work at NCSU where I got my master’s,” says Wood, who teaches AP biology, genetics, research and microbiology to sophomores, juniors and seniors at Enloe. “I want my students to be able to take a project that I bring from this lab and carry it on.”

In fact, Wood, along with a high-school student, will in the coming year return to participate in a research project with Rose.

“We are committed to staying in touch with these teachers to provide them with material support,” says Rose — ensuring the ongoing cascade of what one teacher described as “a lot of great ideas to effectively communicate how science works.”