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Summer Institute Keeps Teachers ahead of the Curve

teacher-skew-2016-1020x415Scientific knowledge is forever moving forward, and the Curriculum Development Projects in Plant Biology summer institute at the Boyce Thompson Institute is helping teachers to keep pace with new advances.

During the on-campus experience, held July 18-22, an enthusiastic group of middle and high school STEM educators gathered at BTI to learn about new discoveries in agriculture, plant biotechnology and bioenergy research. The hands-on labs, lectures and discussions allow teachers to make connections with colleagues and to stay one step ahead of changing trends in science and STEM education.

This year’s lesson plan focused on themes of food and energy. Many BTI scientists spoke about their work and led group discussions, including researchers from the Van Eck lab; Kochian lab staff including Jon Shaff, Eric Croft and Brandon Larson; Professors Susan McCouch and David Stern. Teaching lab coordinator Becky Sims and Director of Education Tiffany Fleming led the teachers through BTI classroom lab experiments and curriculum development activities to create algae photobioreactors, test corn’s resistance to herbivory, and examine root system architecture. In the future, alumni teachers will develop and receive materials to implement these labs, and others, with their students.

The program also integrated more engineering concepts into their existing plant science curriculum. Stern, for example, is working with Associate Professor Arum Han, a biomedical engineer at Texas A&M University in College Station, to study algae that produce oils for biofuel. Stern talked with the teachers about strategies to develop oil-producing algae, while Han’s lab member, Hyun Soo Kim, presented their work on a microfluidics device that can rapidly measure the growth and oil production of different strains. New programming this year included the design of a carbon dioxide-capturing system to feed into an algal biofuel reactor.

“Both in research and in education, people are collaborating more often with engineers,” said Fleming. “The challenge for teachers is to bring engineering concepts into biology and to surround it in a shell of problem solving to impact real-world issues.”

The summer institute also aimed to help teachers develop curricula that meet the goals outlined by the Next Generation Science Standards. This nationwide effort on behalf of scientists, business and educators, is aimed at increasing science literacy in schools and preparing students for careers in science and engineering.

Laura McCall, a biology teacher from Tullahoma High School in Tennessee, attended the institute because she wanted to interact with researchers and learn about advances in plant science that she could take back to inspire her students.

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“Content is important, but we also need to recognize that we can’t teach all the content that they need to know,” said McCall. “We really need to help them be prepared to be independent learners and to have skills to think critically and solve problems.”

The course also provides participants with the opportunity to create a professional learning community with fellow STEM educators. The Education and Outreach group received a record-setting 187 applications from 32 states for the 15 spots in the course, enabling them to select a diverse group of outstanding teachers from across the country, representing teachers with different experience levels, who serve different populations of students. Teachers came from public and charter schools, rural and urban schools, affluent and high-needs schools, and districts as close as Newfield, New York and as far as Los Angeles.

“The diversity of teachers here has been great,” said Marlon Francis, an earth and space science teacher at Trinity High School in Louisville, Kentucky. “For me, even though I’m an experienced teacher, I really enjoy collaborating with younger teachers and people doing different things, because we each have a different situation and that gives a different perspective.”

Elizabeth England, a science teacher from Rochester Middle School in New Hampshire, also enjoyed meeting new colleagues through BTI.

“The week’s not going to end on Friday,” said England. “I see a lot of these relationships lasting my entire teaching career.”

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