Photo by Caren Brinkema
When Everett-based high school science teacher Carole Tanner began her first Science Education Partnership workshop at the Hutchinson Center five years ago, she did not anticipate the changes it would bring to her career, her school and her students. Nor did she know that she would find herself the winner of the prestigious Murdock Partners in Science Award, spending two summers participating in cutting-edge evolutionary research in a lab at Fred Hutch.
Like all teachers who attend the SEP as first-year participants, Tanner, who teaches biology at Jackson High, was selected from a pool of applicants to attend the program at the Hutchinson Center, learning lab techniques, working in a lab, and developing a curriculum based on their experience, designed to best communicate the material to their students’ particular needs. Each subsequent year Tanner has returned to SEP as a lead teacher to help smooth the way for new participants.
Tanner is among the latest in a long line of teachers who have used the SEP as a foundation to go on to win the Murdock Award, a grant by the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust that provides $15,000 in funding to allow teachers to work for eight weeks each summer for two consecutive years in a research lab under the supervision of a mentoring scientist. There, teachers gain additional hands-on experience and knowledge that they can take back to their schools to motivate and inspire their students, while also benefitting the labs in which they work.
Tanner is currently in her first summer stint, working in the Human Biology Division lab of Dr. Katie Peichel, assisting with research on a new project based on data from research by Peichel’s colleagues Drs. Michael Emerman and Harmit Malik. Peichel is developing studies using stickleback fish to understand the evolutionary struggle between hosts and the viruses that prey upon them.
“What’s coolest about this research is I can take it back to my kids and not only be able to teach much better about the immune system and viruses and the way cells evade viruses but also the evolutionary factor,” Tanner said.
The Murdock Award is paid out $7,500 each year, with $5,000 going to teachers, $1,000 to the lab to help divert the extra cost of having another person in the lab, and the remainder to cover travel expenses to a regional and national conference where participants present their work to other award recipients each year.
Refreshing knowledge and expanding skills
One of the most significant benefits of the SEP/Murdock Award experience is that it allows teachers to refresh their knowledge and expand their skills to keep up with new trends in the ever-growing scientific field. “You tend to lose ground when you teach the same classes each year without the real world coming in,” Tanner said, “and as teachers we don’t always have the time or money to keep up. Most grad programs in science meet during the day, so being funded over the summer so you have a real collaborative experience in the lab is invaluable.”
‘My students have just blossomed’
Not only has Tanner’s SEP experience been career-changing for her, but it has had a positive impact on her school. With Cynthia McIntyre, a fellow SEP lead teacher from Everett High School, Tanner has seen student interest in the sciences soar since they began bringing their lab experiences and the SEP lab kits into the classroom. The SEP lab kits, assembled and maintained at Fred Hutch, contain all the equipment for experiments in such areas as DNA gel electrophoresis, bacterial transformation and detection of avian flu. “Students love it because with the SEP kits, you use real lab equipment and do cool experiments,” Tanner said. “Fred Hutch subsidizes the cost of reagents and other supplies, allowing students to do things they’d never get to do otherwise, especially in low-income districts like ours. My students have just blossomed.”
“When I first got to Jackson, we had one class of AP biology with 17 kids in it. Two years later, after I did SEP, I had three sections of AP, completely full, with 82 kids. And in the general biology classes, we have one of the highest pass rates for the state-mandated test. I can’t necessarily say all that is due to the SEP, but it certainly has had a huge impact,” she said.
Additionally, Tanner’s experience with SEP encouraged her to get involved in curriculum development at the district level. She and McIntyre proposed the school’s first biotech class to the district, which was approved and has become wildly popular. “We created a class for mid-level students to give them the skills to go directly into the biotech certificate program at Shoreline Community College. It’s a way for kids who don’t necessarily want to go to a four-year college to have the opportunity to see their options aren’t just jobs flipping burgers or whatever. The response was terrific. We were hoping to get about 30 kids, but the catalog came out and 192 signed up. Even with four sections, it’s more than we can handle!” she said.
Mutually benefitting education and science
Tanner’s work under SEP and the Murdock grant has also mutually benefitted the Hutchinson Center by providing outreach into the community as well as bringing new perspectives in.
Said Peichel, “By reaching out to and educating high school teachers, we can educate a lot more students. Being exposed to current research gives the teachers the tools they need to motivate and educate their students on why scientific research is important to their lives now and in the future.
“Also, teachers bring a different perspective — they help us understand what students really know and don’t know, and how we can better get our message across to students and the general public. Carole is definitely providing insight into her students’ knowledge and helping me think what will be relevant and interesting to them. It’s also great to have someone in the lab who is mostly invested in learning something new and who doesn’t necessarily need to have publishable results by the end of the summer, enabling her to take on this new and somewhat risky project. I appreciate her hard work, willingness to learn and patience.”