I had the distinct honor last weekend to serve on a panel of judges evaluating ten finalists for the Genzyme-Invitrogen Biotech Educator Award. Indeed, Genzyme's hospitality was the reason I got to marvel at the interior of their building.
That's the best reaction to viewing all ten of the applications, which included a video of a lesson with annotation & reflection, a 10 minute presentation and 10 minutes of questioning by the panel. The submissions came from across the United States (though the contest is not restricted the U.S.; I believe one past winner was from Canada), from near biotech centers to rural communities far from any biotech company. Some schools were small, some were large. All had found creative ways to cope with the expense of biotech and the challenge of catching the attention of high school students.
The union of the the presentations contained an amazing array of ideas. Parent's nights where the kids become the mentor, dancing out the act of translation, demonstrating enzyme kinetics with nothing higher tech than paper, running experiments with enzymes purchased at the grocery, students creating instructional videos on laboratory technique -- even high schoolers running the show when third graders come for a day.
What was particularly impressive was how these programs were not limited to elite academic science geeks (I can say that; I am one). Many of the programs are in Vocational-Technical schools, and many were in schools with high populations economically disadvantaged children. Non-scientists were lured in by bioethics discussions and art contests.
Now I'm a few years post-secondary school, but I had nothing like this. A lot of the topics covered (and experiments run) I didn't hit until college -- of course, a few (e.g. PCR) weren't invented until then. I couldn't help a friendly chuckle at the exercise on Sanger sequencing; that's one lesson to be radically rewritten in the near future.
Does it make a difference? I believe so, and I have one data point to back it up. Later during the weekend I was describing this to a friend of ours, and her fourth-grader perked up. I asked if she knew about DNA, and she had heard of it. I asked how she liked science class (we live in a well-funded school district), and her smile dropped to a frown. "Mostly reading" (deeper frown) -- "No experiments!".
A bunch of themes reappeared in presentation after presentation. Money is a challenge, due to the expence of equipment and reagents (at least one teacher scans the paper for biotechs going through downsizing to find opportunities to gain gear!). Rigid state standards & testing requirements make some lessons difficult to fit in. Many teachers reported success enlisting teachers in other disciplines to cross-plan lessons, but it's not at all easy to accomplish. Surprisingly, none mentioned problems with controversial topics, and many of the lessons probably wouldn't have flown in my staid high school.
At the awards banquet I got a chance to see two other high school student engagement efforts, the Biodreaming poster competition (sponsored by Dow Agrosciences & Lilly) and at my dinner table were two young scientists participating in the BioGENEius research contest. I didn't have an opportunity to meet any of the minority scholars there, but a lot of young men and women stood when they were recognized.
Many of these teachers were trying to propagate (metastasize?) their programs to other districts or were participating in state or national standards setting efforts. Let us hope that they succeed magnificently so that all students have the opportunity to be excited by our science, and even if not excited by it they leave high school with a background which enables them to make reasoned choices as consumers and voters.