As a student science teacher, Rebecca Dodt stood in awe of the experienced teachers at Bothell High School, just outside of Seattle. Their innovative lesson plans and ability to inspire students seemed almost magical.
“They were my gold standard of what teachers could be,” recalled Dodt, who now, seven years later, now leads her own middle school science classrooms.
What Dodt didn’t know at the time was that one of the experts she admired, Amanda Rainwater, had a few extra tricks in her teaching toolkit: She’d completed Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Science Education Partnership, aimed at enhancing the skills of Washington state middle and high school science teachers.
Teachers complete SEP over several weeks in the summer, working on hands-on projects in Fred Hutch labs and how to incorporate what they've learned into the classroom. The program provides teachers with experience in research and up-to-date experimental techniques. After completing SEP, teachers have access to science kits for their classrooms covering a range of topics. With these kits, students learn how scientific techniques can be used to address real-world problems — from tracking illegally poached elephant ivory, to using DNA to exonerate people falsely convicted of crimes.
Rainwater is just one of the 580 teachers who have participated in SEP since its inception 30 years ago. Over the years, she and other SEP teachers have inspired thousands of students and new generations of teachers, including Dodt.
This summer, Dodt, encouraged by Rainwater, participated in SEP herself — and felt an unexpected jolt of déjà vu: Dodt realized she’d already encountered several of the kits and lesson plans in the classrooms of Rainwater and her Bothell High peers.
“It was like, ‘Oh, now I get it,’” she said.
Though it’s grown and expanded over 30 years, SEP’s goals remain unchanged, said Fred Hutch’s Senior Director of Education & Training Dr. Jeanne Ting Chowning, who’s overseen SEP since 2016.
“SEP’s goals have been to contribute to a broad understanding of the scientific enterprise,” she said. “We hope that through SEP, students who hadn’t thought about a scientific career are inspired to think about the role of science in their lives.”
And, molecular biology is expensive — out of reach for many schools. SEP helps give more students up-to-date skills and knowledge in this field.
“But they love it,” Chowning said. “Often, different kinds of students excel in those environments than in other kinds of academic settings.”
Chowning estimates that in any given pre-COVID year, more than 15,000 Washington state students used a SEP kit.
“And most students were reached multiple times,” she said, noting that SEP teachers will often use three or four different kits over the course of a school year.
But it’s not just students who benefit from SEP.
From the beginning, “SEP was designed to serve teachers. We always wanted to support them as professionals and partners,” Chowning said.
She knows firsthand that participation in SEP can inspire teachers: A teacher by training, she completed SEP in 1995, working in the laboratory of Dr. Maxine Linial. Then, she spent two summers in the lab of blood stem-cell researcher and powerhouse mentor Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb.
“I was able to develop a biotech class after summers with Bev — I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise,” Chowning said.
One of SEP’s goals is to level the playing field for students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in science, which often means giving teachers a leg up, too. SEP's current program, funded in part by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, requires several weeks of in-person participation at Fred Hutch’s Seattle campus. Teachers from other regions can apply for scholarships to support their participation, Chowning said.
Rainwater joined SEP to get professional development in new lab techniques and access to the kits full of expensive reagents and equipment — far beyond what her school could afford. Later, as a teacher on special assignment, she put together other kits and helped developed problem-based curricula, which SEP does really well, she said.
Teachers participating in SEP think about not only why students should learn about a topic, but what tools they need to do so, she said.
“We learn best through stories,” Rainwater said. “SEP has been instrumental in modeling how to use real-world problems to engage students with the content. They provided not only the ‘storyline,’ but the expensive materials to use with my students to allow them to ‘work like scientists.’”
And now, she can tell students her own stories of working like a scientist — her successes and her stumbles. As a previous SEP participant, Rainwater was able to take part in a longer, more in-depth research project this past summer, through a Pathways Hutch Teacher Fellowship, funded by the National Cancer Institute YES/Cure program.
She worked intensively in the lab of microbiologist Dr. Nina Salama, who studies how the bacterium Helicobacter pylori contributes to cancer, including stomach cancer and certain types of lymphomas. Rainwater and her lab mentor hit a hiccup after writing down the wrong reagents for an experiment. Instead of analyzing data, they were forced to rewind and start over.
“If science teachers teach without direct research experience, the challenges and excitement of scientific research are not always apparent to them,” Chowning said.
Now, Rainwater and other SEP teachers can tell their students stories about troubleshooting and struggling with ambiguous results. They can describe what it's like to try to answer questions that aren’t in any textbook.
“To represent science more authentically to students, those experiences are really important for teachers,” Chowning said. “We also give them time to think about how to bring that back to classroom.”
After her first SEP summer, Rainwater developed a project for her general biology classes’ ecology unit. Students learned how to use gel electrophoresis, a standard molecular biology technique, to identify the main species of salmon being consumed by the Puget Sound’s resident orcas. Rainwater was able to show her students how a scientific technique could be applied to address a real-world problem: the ecology of an endangered species.
Several students connected deeply with the material, she said, asking about the steps they could take — today — to help. The elephant conservation kit also offered a jumping-off point for Rainwater to further engage her students, by having them evaluate potential solutions.
She also put lessons from SEP into use in designing professional development programs for other teachers, like Dodt.
“I modeled the way I taught professional development after what SEP had done,” she said. “It was helpful for me, learning how to teach other teachers, what teachers need.”
And five years ago, she took on the challenge of crafting a problem-based biotechnology/biomedical program for a new high school, drawing inspiration from SEP’s problem-based approach. Now every student passing through the school gets a boost from Rainwater’s SEP experience. For example, every floor needed a science supply room, and Rainwater used her experience designing SEP-like kits to figure out how to organize supplies to make them easily and reliably accessible for busy teachers.
Her summer in Salama’s lab inspired Rainwater to refresh a National Institutes of Health curriculum on the epidemiology of cancer that was originally put together in 1997. The data is decades old and the lesson plan doesn’t include information about how pathogens like H. pylori or human papillomavirus contribute to cancer. Rainwater is planning to incorporate some of Salama’s data on H. pylori antibiotic resistance and cancer incidence into the new curriculum.
Dodt will also be bringing SEP back to her classroom. She developed a protocol to help students improve the way that students analyze the graphs they encounter in science texts. To help her students assess whether a graph actually shows what it claims to, Dodt will guide them to look more deeply, including at graph labels, intervals and how the data was collected.
Chowning regularly hears back from teachers who say the experience transformed their teaching — and their impact on students. They’ve seen how access to up-to-date curricula and technology can inspire students to choose scientific careers, particularly underrepresented students who might otherwise have never considered that career path. Feedback from teachers helps SEP shape new curricula, such as the new unit on Race, Racism and Genetics, which grew out of teachers’ requests for a unit focused on science and social justice.
“There’s a big need for kids to be informed citizens,” Rainwater said.
SEP’s work is made possible in part by the National Institutes of Health: Frontiers in Cancer Research, a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, and Pathways to Cancer Research, a Youth Enjoy Science Award (YES/CURE) from the National Cancer Institute, and the Straws Foundation. The contents of this article are solely the responsibility of the SEP/Fred Hutch and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIGMS, NCI, or NIH.
Sabrina Richards, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, has written about scientific research and the environment for The Scientist and OnEarth Magazine. She has a PhD in immunology from the University of Washington, an MA in journalism and an advanced certificate from the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. Reach her at email@example.com.
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