January 05, 2007

Students’ Science Interest Grows as Proteins are Made to ‘Glow’

Cutting-edge labs made possible through UCSD partnership

On a recent Saturday morning, San Ysidro High students Elvida Garcia and Karen Flores were in a classroom learning to isolate and purify samples of DNA.

They were holding up tubes of bacterial solution for inspection. Soon, they were learning to make proteins “glow” when exposed to UV light, all under the guidance of both Sweetwater District biology teachers and geneticists from the University of California, San Diego. Nearly 30 students and teachers were participating in the workshop, which was hosted by Castle Park High as part of a pioneering science education program with UCSD.

GLOW OF LEARNING: San Ysidro High student Elvida Garcia examines a bacterial solution as part of a Saturday workshop where biology teachers and students learned together about protein purification, genetic engineering and biotechnology.

“It’s very neat to meet different people and get into the definitions of how it all works,” said Karen, a senior who aspires to be an astronaut.

Elvida, a sophomore interested in a career in marine biology, noted she came to the workshop of her own volition.

“You’re not doing it for a grade; you’re doing it for fun,” Elvida said. “It’s cool because there is a lot of help and everyone knows what they are doing.”

Called BioBridge, the pilot program has trained more than 30 Sweetwater science teachers so far to help bridge gaps in science education faced by many secondary schools. The Sweetwater teachers have learned new, engaging lab techniques based on advances from UCSD’s own world-class research laboratories. The educators have been practicing teaching these methods to small groups of their own students at Saturday workshops supported by UCSD geneticists.

“These are the same techniques that researchers at UCSD and elsewhere are using to isolate selected proteins in order to study the DNA make up of an array of diseases and disorders,” said Steve Rodecker, Sweetwater’s high school science curriculum specialist. “In the process, students are learning about genetic engineering and biotechnology.”

Sweetwater science teachers start their two-step training at UCSD where they learn about cutting-edge scientific advances and lab techniques—knowledge they are taking back to their high school classrooms to help improve student achievement and career interest in science.

“There have always been four main problems with providing high quality cutting edge laboratory experiences in science classrooms—lack of curriculum, lack of money to buy the supplies necessary to run the labs, lack of teacher time to prepare the labs adequately for five class periods, and lack of sustained science professional development,” Rodecker said.

BioBridge is funded through a $2.1 million grant awarded to the university by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The need for BioBridge is driven by several key current developments in education: a declining number of U.S. high school students who go on to pursue undergraduate science degrees; the lack of resources available to schools in underserved areas to provide challenging, engaging science lessons; the difficulty for many teachers in finding the time or means to keep current on scientific developments; and the challenge of integrating such advances into their classroom instruction in an exciting way.

The partnership is a natural extension of twin-pronged efforts currently under way in Sweetwater schools to enhance instruction and the environment for learning. As part of a sweeping bond-funded renovation, many science classrooms across the district have begun to be equipped with the latest infrastructure and technology to better support lab activities.

When the 2005-2006 school year ended in June, Sweetwater was in construction totaling nearly $250 million at 21 schools, five of which were separately known as “Summer Sprint” projects at middle schools totaling $25.5 million. Now, the district will have a lab-infused science curriculum to match its state-of-the-art classroom facilities. Many topics in biology, chemistry and physics that are usually taught from a book will come to life with the new labs—an outcome of on-going professional development.

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