Science Education Partnership celebrates 25 years bringing cutting-edge biology to Washington state classrooms

Director Dr. Nancy Hutchison to retire next month; SEP member Jeanne Chowning takes the reins
Dr. Nancy Hutchison Science Education Partnership
Under Dr. Nancy Hutchison's direction, the Science Education Partnership has worked with about 500 Washington state science teachers. Hutchison is retiring in October after a 34-year career at the Hutch. Photo courtesy of Caren Brinkema

When Barb Schulz met Dr. Nancy Hutchison, who was at the time a molecular biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Schulz had been a high school biology teacher for 20 years.

But Hutchison was the first practicing scientist she’d ever met.

Schulz didn’t let that 1989 meeting, which was almost a chance occurrence, go by quietly. The next day, she called Hutchison to ask if she had any spare frog eggs that Schulz’s students could use for an experiment. And soon after, Schulz asked if one of her Shoreline, Washington, high school students  could spend the summer interning in Hutchison’s lab. During that summer, Schulz visited the Hutch to see what her student was up to.

“I saw what the student was doing and I said, ‘Move over and let me do it too,’” said Schulz, who is now retired from teaching and lives in Sisters, Oregon. “And one thing led to another and we talked about, wouldn’t it be more effective if instead of taking a student she would take a teacher?”

And the rest, as Schulz said, was history — more than two decades of history, as the Hutch’s Science Education Partnership that she and Hutchison later founded marks its 25th anniversary this year. Hutchison, Schulz and their colleagues in education and research got SEP off the ground shortly after that summer internship, launching a program to give Washington state high school and middle school science teachers access to cutting-edge biology knowledge, techniques, materials and equipment.

The program, which has worked with approximately 500 Washington science teachers since its inception, is like a science boot camp for teachers. They attend an intensive, hands-on training session at the Hutch during the summer, after which they pair up with individual Hutch researchers to conduct experiments and learn new techniques in those researchers’ labs. By the end, the teachers develop new experiments and teaching segments for their classes. The program also loans out science kits throughout the school year for SEP teachers to use in their classrooms.

The “partnership” piece of SEP is its most critical component, said Hutchison, who’s been the program’s director since it came into existence. Hutchison is retiring next month after a 34-year career at the Hutch. Jeanne Chowning, an early SEP participant and currently associate executive director at Rainier Scholars, will take the reins in mid-October.

“This piece, the partnership, seemed really important from the get-go — working together with teachers, not trying to ‘fix’ teachers, but really working together,” Hutchison said. “Scientists have a huge amount to learn about how to be better communicators and teachers.”

SEP co-founder Barb Schulz works with students in a Fred Hutch training lab. Photo courtesy of Caren Brinkema

From chromosomes to classrooms

Hutchison wasn’t completely new to the world of science education when she first met Schulz. She’d joined the Hutch in 1982 as a postdoctoral research fellow working with the late Dr. Harold Weintraub, and a few years later she answered a call from the Pacific Science Center looking for scientists willing to give a presentation to visiting teachers.

Hutchison showed up on that day in 1984 to a panel of 20 teachers and realized she was the only scientist who’d volunteered. She gamely started delivering her lecture, but it wasn’t long before the teachers interrupted her scribblings on the blackboard to ask questions about the techniques, the details, the equipment. Hutchison found herself running back and forth between the lecture room and her lab to show her audience real-life samples of pipettes and gel boxes.

“The next thing you know, they were saying, ‘We want to do that,’” Hutchison said.

She was hooked. And she realized the teachers knew far better than she did about how to teach (lesson one: don’t just lecture), but they had no access to the latest advances in research and its methodology.

To improve local science education, the teachers needed working scientists. And the scientists needed teachers.

“[The teachers] really know what they need, and the stand-and-deliver thing that we use so much … that doesn’t work with how people learn,” Hutchison said.

She recruited Weintraub and other senior researchers at the Hutch to participate in the series and, for the first time, she considered a career in science education rather than the research track she’d been pursuing. For several years, she participated in a local effort with the science center, the University of Washington and other Seattle-area organizations to help bolster K-12 science education in Washington.

And then soon after meeting Schulz, Hutchison began to think about establishing a new, Hutch-based program for professional development for science teachers. With the enthusiastic backing of Weintraub and former Fred Hutch scientific director Dr. Paul Neiman, Hutchison, Schulz and their colleagues who helped establish SEP looked around at established programs that work well — including the Science & Health Education Partnership run by the University of California, San Francisco, and San Francisco’s public school district. Hutchison was inspired by that program — which also lends out science kits to local schools — in particular the aspect of a teacher education program run by both teachers and scientists.

SEP “totally couldn’t be what it is if it were a bunch of scientists sitting in a room deciding what to do,” Hutchison said. “It would be a disaster. And if it were just teachers, they wouldn’t have access.”

Reflecting back on the 25 years she’s overseen the program, Hutchison is overwhelmed by the results — and pleasantly surprised by the unexpected path education has led her along. When she first started working with teachers, she had just launched her own laboratory research group at the Hutch, but putting in so much hard work without always seeing tangible results was frustrating, she said.

Now, her day-to-day experience is different.

“In this work with the teachers what I began to realize is, every day I’m making a difference,” Hutchison said. “I can hear it in the stories from teachers, the questions from students.”

Hutchison has inspired more people than just SEP participants, said Fred Hutch transplant researcher Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, who helped get SEP off the ground and has since launched her own education programs at the Hutch, focusing on high school students from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in science.

Hutchison’s work at the Hutch set the stage for future education efforts like hers, said Torok-Storb, who also participates in SEP as a researcher, mentoring participating teachers in her lab.

“She made people understand the importance of it in the big picture, and she won that battle, which gave encouragement to people like me,” Torok-Storb said. “She’s established it so well that it will continue. And I think that’s the big test of your success when you initiate a program, is that it will live on.”

Kids who see themselves as learners

Everyone thinks of Hutchison as the SEP, but she’s the first to correct that misconception. She has tireless staff working with her, and then there are the 500 teachers who have participated in SEP since 1991. About 150 of them are still active SEP members, Hutchison said — they return year after year to borrow kits or participate as lead teachers helping teach in the workshops and mentoring the 25 new teachers that sign up every year. The kits and classroom curricula the teachers and scientists develop have a much broader reach — about 35,000 students use these kits or are exposed to the SEP-developed lessons every year, Hutchison estimates.

Aram Langhans Science Education Partnership
Retired high school physics teacher Aram Langhans of Naches, Washington, describes SEP as "the most amazing experience I've ever had in education." Photo courtesy of Brian Osborne

”But the broader impact of the program is a bit harder to measure, she said, especially because her ultimate goal is not to push more students to enter science careers but to foster an engaging learning experience through science.

“The things we really want to know, they’re not very tangible,” she said. “I am actually eager for kids to have a learning experience that excites them, so they see themselves as a learner; they’re doing something that engages them … If they get a little excited about the science, even better, because science is part of our lives every day.”

The program’s somewhat intangible impact is what makes the individual letters and comments Hutchison receives from teachers and their students so much more meaningful to her. Hutchison recounted a Christmas letter she received in one of SEP’s early years from a participant teaching in the small town of Toledo, Washington.

“She said it’s holiday time, kids are squirrelly, it’s hard to get people to settle in and pay attention — but in my classroom the kids are coming in early before school, they’re coming in during lunch, they’re coming in after school and bringing their friends. They’re so excited about this stuff they’re getting to do, they want to show other kids what they’re doing,” Hutchison remembered. “The first few times I heard things like this, it’s like, tears to my eyes.”

For Aram Langhans, a now-retired high school science teacher from the small Yakima Valley town of Naches, Washington, SEP shifted his entire life.

Langhans had been teaching high school physics for 20 years and was started to feel stagnant in his career. And then he was asked to teach an advanced high school chemistry and biology class, a daunting prospect given that it had been more than two decades since he’d last been exposed to the life sciences. He needed a refresher and a confidence boost, he said.  So he decided to give SEP a try. It reinvigorated him.

“It’s the most amazing experience that I’ve ever had in education,” said Langhans, who worked in Fred Hutch biologist Dr. Dan Gottschling’s laboratory in the summer of 1997. So enamored of the experience, he asked Hutchison if he could come back a second time for a research tour in a former Seattle biotech company, Immunex, in 1999.

“[SEP] is just so unique. I don’t think anything exists like it out there,” Langhans said. For him, Hutchison is “one of maybe two or three people who have influenced my life so much, and I’m just so grateful … She just has this keen understanding of what it takes to educate people, even though she’s never really been an active teacher — she gets it,” he said.

Jeanne Chowning Science Education Program
SEP member Jeanne Chowning succeeds Dr. Nancy Hutchison as the new program director. Photo courtesy of Jeanne Chowning

A success story comes back to her roots

When asked about SEP’s impact and its success stories, Hutchison, Schulz and Torok-Storb all pointed to one person — SEP alum Jeanne Chowning, who will take over for Hutchison as the new program director next month.

Chowning, who was at the time a biology teacher at Juanita High School in Kirkland, Washington, joined SEP in 1995, working in the lab of Fred Hutch virologist Dr. Maxine Linial that summer. She returned for the following two summers to work in Torok-Storb’s lab. After her hands-on lab experiences, she started what was Western Washington’s first biotechnology course in 1996, a program that still continues at Juanita today.

Chowning remembers the science classroom she taught in during her student teaching days. The room was set up to be half laboratory, half traditional classroom, she said, but the lab benches sat dusty and unused.

“I just said to myself, this is not the image of science that I’d like students to have. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s the way that it is taught,” she said. “SEP has done an incredible job of changing the educational landscape in Washington state through its work with science teachers.”

Her time spent in Fred Hutch labs changed how she taught biology, Chowning said. She started designing lab experiments to be more about exploration and less about following a recipe, she gave her students lab notebooks and taught them how to use them, and she began partnering with local scientists to develop classroom research experiments where the answers weren’t yet known.

After six years at Juanita, Chowning got interested in education outreach programs, originally working with Schulz at the now-closed independent education laboratory BioLab, also housed at the Hutch. After BioLab folded, Chowning spent the next 12 years directing science education programs for the non-profit Northwest Association for Biomedical Research — developing curriculum, providing teacher professional development and introducing students to research. She later moved to Rainier Scholars, a Seattle non-profit that works to improve educational outcomes for low-income students of color. She credits SEP for giving her the confidence to move into leadership positions and for sparking her interest in education policy.

When she heard that Hutchison was retiring and the director position was opening at SEP, she knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

“SEP is so close to my own heart because it absolutely changed the trajectory of my career,” Chowning said. “SEP believed in me way before I believed in myself.”

She wants to get a sense of SEP’s community and get to know the staff, Hutch researchers, and teachers well before she makes specific plans for the program’s future, Chowning said. But she hopes to continue work that Hutchison has started on equity issues in education and identify areas in the state that could use extra help improving their science education.

“To take something that is so important to the community and help to enrich and bring it into its next phase — it’s a little bit daunting, but I’m also very humbled and excited by the opportunity to do this,” Chowning said.

From tens of thousands of students to one

Hutchison’s decision to retire after 34 years did not come easily, she said.

“I thought I was going to just work until I dropped because I’m kind of a workaholic,” she said.

A confluence of events convinced her it was time for a change, and this was the year to take that step.

“I could see that the center had a real commitment to keeping things going,” Hutchison said. “And we’ve done this 25-year piece, which feels good. Of course, every year is another year, but 25 is one that sticks out.”

But mostly, it was one student that has led Hutchison to the next phase of her life — her 11-year-old son, Jacob. Hutchison and her partner, Dr. Karen Peterson, Fred Hutch’s scientific ombudsman and director of the Office of Scientific Career Development, have found that homeschooling is the best approach for their son’s education. So Hutchison is going to spend much of her “retirement” in a different educational role, teaching — and learning from, she’s quick to point out — her sixth-grade son.

She’s confident she’s leaving the program in good hands though, both Chowning’s and those of the team of staff and SEP participants Hutchison has cultivated over the years.

“I don’t expect things will be exactly the same, but that’s not the point. The point is this will go forward and someone whose vision I really admire will be there to help it go forward,” Hutchison said. “It’s another reason this is a good time (to retire): We have a terrific team right now. SEP would not be SEP without the rest of the people in the group.”

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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