Teaching Teachers: Whitehead Institute Program Bridges the Gap Between the Lab and the Classroom

Teachers and partners at Whitehead Institute's teacher program dinner

During dinner at Whitehead Institute's program for high school teachers, Julie Snyder (second from left), discusses the research presenter earlier that afternoon her colleague Jessica Ross (far left), Sudeep Agarwala, a postdoctoral researcher in Whitehead Founding Member Gerald Fink's lab (second from right), and Ericka Anderson, a graduate student in Whitehead Member David Page's lab (far right).

Image: Justin Knight/Whitehead Institute

August 8, 2018

Tags: Awards + Announcements

Most science teachers in Massachusetts have ten or more years of teaching experience.  While such experience can produce greater teaching skill, with this longevity in the classroom comes a complication: Biology and related sciences are fast moving fields that are frequently transformed by new technologies.  Only ten years ago, precision gene editing using CRISPR, organs-in-a-dish, and inexpensive genome sequencing were the stuff of science fiction. Now, these scientific advances—and the ethical and moral discussions they spawn—regularly populate the headlines, fuel dinner table conversations, and generate keen questions in the classroom.

At a time when education budgets are increasingly strapped, biology teachers are not only charged with cultivating our next generation of scientists, but helping to ensure that even those students whose interests may ultimately lie elsewhere achieve a level of scientific literacy and critical thinking skills that are important for all information consumers in our society.

This need to increase scientific curiosity and literacy mirrors one identified in the early 1990s by The Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, which at the time described math and science education in public schools as a “crisis become chronic.” In response, Whitehead Institute faculty and staff, led by Founding Member and the Institute’s then-director Gerald Fink, sought to bridge the knowledge gap between biomedical research labs and the high school classroom. Collaborating with area public school teachers, they created a three-prong education initiative: a monthly lecture and laboratory course for high school teachers; a lecture series for high school students held over their winter break; and summer research opportunities for students in Whitehead Institute labs.

More than 25 years later, both the high school student and teacher lecture series have continued strong, with some modifications. The monthly teacher series, which features the top minds in biomedical research speaking about their groundbreaking work, still strives to inspire, educate, and empower high school biology instructors from the Greater Boston area. This year, the series, entitled “How Technology Drives Biology”, centered on the cyclical relationship between tools and techniques and the scientific discoveries that they propel. Speakers selected for the program have been affiliated with Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and Medical School, or one of the numerous biotech and pharmaceutical companies inhabiting the Kendall Square neighborhood surrounding Whitehead Institute.

As a part of the program, teachers have a unique opportunity to request a “Whitehead Partner”, typically a postdoctoral researcher or a graduate student in one of Whitehead Institute’s labs. Following each lecture, teachers and their partners sit down at long tables in Whitehead Institute’s cafeteria for dinner, where they can discuss the lecture and any scientific questions the teachers may have. Although the lectures are informative and enlightening, Julie Snyder, a 20-year veteran of the program and a biology teacher at Hudson High School in Hudson, Massachusetts, points to the partner component as putting Whitehead Institute’s teacher lecture series head and shoulders above its peers.

Over the years, Snyder has taken the fullest advantage of the partner program.  She and another teacher typically pool their partners and invite others to join them during dinner. Years ago when paper tablecloths topped the tables, the teachers and their partners scribbled all over the tables as they contemplated the best way to present complicated ideas to “the kids”.  Although tablecloths have since given way to notebooks and laptops, those discussions continue to be invaluable. Because the program’s topics are so timely, teachers can talk to scientists at the forefront of research on a Monday night and discuss the same topics with their students on Tuesday.

Case in point: CRISPR, the gene editing technology that has revolutionized genomic research. According to Snyder, Whitehead Institute’s program enabled her to help her students understand the science behind the technique as well as CRISPR’s potential uses and accompanying potential ethical dilemmas.  With this primer, Snyder’s students could understand and participate in the discussions swirling about CRISPR, all while keeping some of the more hyperbolic news headlines in proper perspective.

In addition to helping her process the monthly lectures, over the years Whitehead partners have provided Snyder with curated journal papers and reviews on pertinent topics, materials for experiments, such as yeast and fruit flies, and even visits to the partner’s lab at Whitehead Institute.

For Snyder, the benefits of such a strong relationship between a high school science teacher and Whitehead Institute are tangible. One senior, who is now a freshman majoring in biochemistry, shadowed Snyder’s partner at the time for a week to see what life in the lab would be like. And another student, who was her high school class salutatorian, in her commencement address credited Snyder’s excitement inspired by the Whitehead Institute lectures for sparking her own enthusiasm for science. That student earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard College and is now pursuing her doctoral degree at Stanford University.

For decades, education and community outreach have been woven deep into the Whitehead Institute fabric and mission. Although teachers may be the primary beneficiaries, Whitehead partners learn about challenges inherent to teaching biology in the classroom and develop an affinity for community involvement that continues throughout their careers. Partners typically participate year after year—a strong indication that they think dedicating three or more hours a month to outreach is a valuable investment of their limited time.

 In October, Julie Snyder will be back for more. She will once again open Whitehead Institute’s glass and metal front doors and cross the lobby’s russet granite floors to McGovern Auditorium. After greeting old friends and partners inside—and perhaps grabbing coffee and a cookie baked by Whitehead Institute’s cafeteria staff—she will settle into a seat to listen to a lecture on the upcoming season’s topic: neurodegenerative disease.


Written by Nicole Giese Rura


Communications and Public Affairs
Phone: 617-452-4630
Email: newsroom@wi.mit.edu


Whitehead Institute's Seminar Series for High School Teachers

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