Jenny Tenlen can still recall the thrill she felt the first time she held a pipet in her hand to portion out minute quantities of DNA into colored plastic tubes. The occasion didn't take place in graduate school, or even in college. Thanks to an affiliation between her high school biology teacher and Fred Hutchinson's Science Education Partnership (SEP), Tenlen was treated to a glimpse of the real world of research while a junior at Shorewood High School in Shoreline.
"We had the chance to do the things that real scientists were doing in the lab — things we had only been able to read about," said Tenlen, who is now a graduate student in Dr. Jim Priess' lab, where pipeting DNA is routine. "It really fostered a sense of enthusiasm for science in me and my classmates."
Although Tenlen's interest in science was born at an early age, she credits her teacher Barbara Schulz — a co-founder of SEP — and Schulz's involvement in the program as having helped to shape her career choice. She's one of several students and staff at the center whose interest in research was sparked or boosted in the high school classroom of an SEP participant.
SEP is an award-winning program that sponsors summer laboratory experiences for teachers through one-on-one partnerships with scientists and offers an equipment loan program during the school year. SEP also nurtures an ongoing professional support network that has fostered numerous connections between teachers and center researchers, often leading to scientist visits to classrooms and job-shadowing or internship experiences for students.
Now in it's 14th year, SEP has touched more than 130,000 Washington state high school and middle school students through more than 300 teacher participants. Watching the evolution of SEP's long-term impact across "generations" has been a rewarding surprise, said program director Dr. Nancy Hutchison.
"It takes a while to see how things percolate out," she said. "What's been most exciting for me has been hearing from our teachers about those students who aren't necessarily the most successful in the traditional learning styles, but who become stars once they get the hands-on laboratory experience."
Not all students impacted by SEP will opt for careers in science, nor is that the program's goal. Yet, like Tenlen, a growing number of those who do seek jobs or further education in science are finding their way back to the center.
Audrey McConnell, a research technician in Dr. Toshi Tsukiyama's lab, said she had been "a little bit into science" before taking a biology class taught by SEP participant Mike Fellows at Lakewood High School in Arlington. After completing Fellows' forensics course, in which she used SEP lab equipment to investigate DNA clues in a simulated crime, she became certain that she would pursue a biochemistry degree at Seattle Pacific University. She joined Tsukiyama's Basic Sciences Division lab in 2002.
Fellows, who has returned to the center each summer for the last seven years to help guide new SEP teachers through the program, said McConnell's enthusiasm for the hands-on approach to learning was typical of his students. Another of Fellows' former students, Brian Milless, is now a peptide synthesis specialist in the Proteomics Shared Resource.
"It's amazing to see how excited the students get having the chance to use the authentic scientific equipment," Fellows said. "The opportunity for me to use the SEP kits in my classroom is important not only for the motivation it provides, but also to teach the content effectively. Particularly for students in introductory biology — which may be the last time I see some of the students — it really helps them develop scientific literacy."
Walker Stanovsky, a Harvard University undergraduate biochemical sciences major interning in Dr. Gerry Smith's lab this summer, agreed that the opportunity to conduct authentic experiments in a high school classroom was important not only for science enthusiasts like himself but for all his classmates. His former high school science teacher at Everett High School, Cynthia McIntyre, joined the SEP program in 1998.
"The general public is often mistrustful of science," he said. "I think even if a student isn't interested in becoming a scientist, seeing how science is really done helps to break down barriers."
Some former students of SEP teachers found their own early exposure to authentic research so valuable that they are now providing that opportunity for others. Through the MCB graduate program, Tenlen received teaching credit for being a scientist-mentor for an SEP teacher in 2002. She also makes informal visits to a local elementary school classroom.
"It was so inspiring to me to have a real live scientist visit my classroom when I was in high school," said Tenlen, who taught high school biology before enrolling in the MCB program. "It's a good feeling to now have that impact on others."