Washington University in St. Louis links the power of informal education with classroom activities for innovative 6-12 biology curriculum

December 26, 2000

Washington University has received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that unites university scientists and education specialists with three St. Louis science institutions in an effort to create exciting biology curriculum for area middle and secondary students.

The St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the St. Louis Science Center will lend their personnel and resources to the university and area schools, turning their famed institutions into "living laboratories" that will enhance inquiry-based science activities be developed in eight different study areas.

David L. Kirk, Ph.D., professor of biology, is principal investigator of the grant. The program will be conducted by Victoria May, biology department outreach director. The grant, for $896,456 over three years, is from the NIH Secondary Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program.

It is the first time the SEPA program has paired a university with informal science institutions in this kind of collaboration. The SEPA grant is eligible for renewal for three more years beginning in 2002 in order to disseminate the activities developed under the current grant.

"We're creating a powerful synergy between classroom-based instruction and informal, investigative learning experiences," said Kirk. "This is needed because today's students show a low level of interest in science, which bodes ill for the nation's future supply of physicians and biomedical scientists.

Most children have an inherent interest in science that tends to disappear early, especially with girls and underrepresented minority groups. Studies show, however, that investigative, inquiry-based approaches, as opposed to those that are strictly glossary-based, are good at reaching those who've shown little interest. "

According to May, one thrust of the effort will be to give teachers a framework that will facilitate both state and national demands for student comprehension in a number of different biological areas.

"We look at this as an opportunity to research the wealth of educational resources available in St. Louis," she said. "Teachers are given guidelines for what they're supposed to teach and what the students are supposed to learn, but no time to develop the framework," May said. "Together, with teacher input, our teams will create a framework and implement it. We'll come up with something that no single person would come up with on their own, something new that will help students learn and retain. The three institutions we're working with have 'gee whiz' resources, some of the best in the nation."

The SEPA grants provide for curriculum development in eight topic areas. The first topic, "Genetics and Human Affairs," will use the theater group and DNA Zone Gallery of the Science Center. The second topic, "These Feet Were Made for Walking," covers skeleto-muscular evolution using displays on bones, joints, locomotion and evolution in the Ecology and Environment and Human Adventure galleries of the Science Center.

"Pathways to Perception and Misperception" covers sensory biology using resources in the Science Center's Human Adventure Gallery. "Foods, Fads, Fat and Fitness: Nutrition and Human Health" will use the MedTech Gallery of the Science Center.

"Animal Behavior and Social Interactions" uses the Zoo to observe a variety of familial or social animal groupings. "Leapin' Lizards and Flying Dinosaurs" focuses on animal adaptations using selected mammal areas as well as the Herpetarium and Bird House of the Zoo.

"Contrasting Biomes: Tropical vs. Temperate Forests," will use the tropical rain forest exhibit in the Missouri Botanical Garden Climatron and the Garden's Litzinger Ecology Center. The final topic, "Human Impact on Ecosystems," will use the Missouri House and the Ecology and Environment galleries of the Science Center, the Garden and Litzinger Ecology Center.

Although the actual curriculum has yet to be developed, Kirk and May have envisioned several possible ways that classroom activities may be explored and reinforced at the informal science institutions.

For example, a teacher doing the "Genetics and Human Affairs" unit could have students witness a play put on by the Science Center's Science Theater Caravan. that stresses the difficulties an individual can have using genetic information to make key health decisions. This can show students that genetics is not just an abstract laboratory experience, but a vital issue that impacts everyone.

Afterwards, a visit to the Center's DNA Zone Gallery visually re-emphasizes the theme. Such an experience can set the stage for investigations students will make back in their classrooms. After they've completed the unit, they may return to the Science Center's Exploradome -- this time as presenters to school officials, board members, family members and Science Center visitors -- in order to show what they've learned from their experiences.

"There is a concern, among secondary and college faculty alike, that the narrative and dramatic flavors of biology and biomedicine are sorely lacking in today's textbooks and exercises," May said. "But the institutions can reflect those aspects vividly with their abundant resources. We think these experiences can make a difference in understanding and retaining the subject matter and in the attitude of students."

No fewer than 12 Washington University Hilltop and Medical School faculty, many of them world-renowned, will participate in the program. Collaborating investigators include Mark Johnston, M.D., (Department of Genetics); Sarah C.R. Elgin, Ph.D., Stanton Braude, Ph.D., and Jonathan Losos, Ph.D., (Department of Biology); James Cheveraud, Ph.D., and Steve Peterson, Ph.D., (Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology); Jean Shaffer, Ph.D., (medicine, molecular biology and pharmacology departments); and Phyllis Balcerzak, (Department of Education). Peter Raven, Ph.D., director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, also Engelmann Professor of Botany at Washington University. Douglas King, President of the St. Louis Science Center, and Charles Hoessle, director of the St. Louis Zoo, will lead the projects developed at their institutions.

According to May, during the winter and spring of 2001, teams comprised of Kirk, Science Outreach staff, faculty experts, institutional participants, graduate students and local middle and high school teachers will develop four of the units. A teacher workshop will be offered in the summer and pilot groups will field test the units during the '01-'02 school year. By the fall of '02, all eight units will be developed and ready for field-testing.

Science Outreach will evaluate the effectiveness of the units by testing students on their comprehension and retention and also, subjectively, on how they react to the field trip experience. In addition to featuring three renowned independent science institutions, another strength of the proposal was the Science Outreach program's highly successful track record. Begun in the late 1980s by Sarah C. R. Elgin, Ph.D., professor of biology, with an arrangement with the University City School District, the program has grown today to encompass nine area-wide programs with schools.

Outreach staff work year-round with middle and high school teachers on a wide range of curriculum, workshop and laboratory experiences, including Modern Genetics for All Students, a high school molecular biology curriculum which was initially supported by an NIH SEPA grant in 1991. Today, 54 biology teachers in 11 diverse area high schools teach this material to over 4,500 students.

"We are lucky to be in St. Louis for this kind of project," May said. "We have enthusiastic teachers here and administrative support, but we also have institutions that are eager and happy to cooperate in sharing their resources and energy."

Washington University in St. Louis

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