Hutch News

Science education program's record of excellence keeps evolving

July 17, 2003

The Teaching Lab on the first floor of the Weintraub building hums with activity as two dozen science teachers coax strands of DNA from an assortment of fruits and vegetables and busily scribble their findings in lab notebooks.

As the 13th summer session of the Science Education Partnership (SEP) gets underway, you might expect the scene to be a routine one for the program's director, Dr. Nancy Hutchison, and her staff. Instead, it's anything but business as usual for the award-winning partnership of teachers and scientists.

"We're always evolving," Hutchison said. "While we're thrilled by the program's established success, we continually strive to make the quality of the experience better for our participants."

Once again, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has recognized the program's excellence with a renewed grant for more than $500,000. SEP is one of 19 programs from a pool of more than 115 applicants selected to receive funding from the prestigious biomedical philanthropic organization.

The grant supports the program's ongoing expenses to provide a scientific-research hub for more than 250 teachers in Washington state, a number that grows by 25 each year. Now, Hutchison's latest challenge is to apply this new round of funding, which begins in September, toward building the program's capacity to support this ever-expanding SEP community.

"We're developing ways to do more with our existing resources," she said. "We have more teachers every year and we continue to increase the number of science kits we loan to classrooms. The challenge is to make it possible to continue this expansion while maintaining our standards of excellence-and to do it without increasing the program's staff."

Educational model

Founded in 1991, SEP has grown from a grass-roots effort into an educational outreach effort that serves as a model for institutions around the world. The centerpiece of the program is a two-and-a-half week summer session in which teachers learn the basics of molecular biology by working closely with SEP staff and a group of experienced "lead" teachers. In addition, each teacher spends one week in a research laboratory where he or she works one-on-one with a mentor scientist from the center or one of several local partner institutions. Some teachers are paired with molecular and cellular biology (MCB) graduate students, who earn teaching credit and valuable science-communication skills through their experience. Working together with their mentors, lead teachers and SEP staff, participants develop projects and lesson plans to bring back to their classrooms.

The challenge for SEP now, Hutchison said, is to keep up with the program's success. Taking a cue from what has often proved to be a successful strategy in business, she has reorganized staff roles and responsibilities to better adapt to the program's growth. In addition, she and her staff will place increasing emphasis on developing and refining the use of computer databases that allow SEP to manage its the kit-loan program and communicate more efficiently with participants.

Dr. Mary Vail, program manager/teaching scientist, will be promoted to associate program director in September. In addition to her current responsibilities, which include managing day-to-day program operations, fielding scientific questions from teachers and guiding the volunteer scientists who serve as mentors for teachers, Vail will assume increased responsibility for the MCB graduate student mentors and for overall program direction. Deanna Stelling, the program's kit loan coordinator, will be promoted to systems and database manager. Stelling has spent much of the last year mastering a database to organize and streamline the system of loaning equipment kits to teachers, responding to teacher queries and e-mailing key program information to participants.

"The kit-loan program is huge," Stelling said. "Each school year we must process hundreds of loan requests, which involves scheduling, replenishing supplies each time a kit is loaned out and providing user support." Stelling is assisted by students Celina Tam and Ladawna Gievers, who expertly repack kits to meet the demanding schedule.

One of the most recent additions to the assortment of kits available to teachers is the "Elephant Project," which leads young scientists on a search for the origin of illegally exported ivory through DNA tracking.

A portion of grant funding will also be used to assess the program's effect on both teachers and scientist-mentors.

Growth and evaluation

"We've had outside experts conduct program evaluation for many years," Hutchison said. "But we'll be placing increasing emphasis on evaluation during this funding cycle. It's import for us to critically evaluate our the program's strengths as well as areas we'd like to develop further." SEP is working with Kate Haley-Goldman from the Institute for Learning Innovation to evaluate the program.

In addition, Vail said," with the current economic situation and a decreased availability of grant money, funding agencies are increasingly paying attention to whether the programs they support are doing a first-rate job and can demonstrate specific outcomes."

Based on the enthusiasm of participants-SEP loaned more than 300 kits to 117 teachers during the last school year-the evaluation results won't be hard to predict. Still, Hutchison insists there is always room for improvement and refinement.

"We're not content to just rest on our success," she said. "We continually strive to be the very best program we can."

[Lauren Vane is a journalism student at Boston University and intern with Center News.]

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