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Despite some improvement, U.S. students still lag behind their peers in developing countries when it comes to science and mathematics. A new Pitt program is trying to change that by bringing together high school students and teachers, University researchers, and 21st-century biology.

Next Question?

Bo Schwerin

  Max Garber, front left, and Alison Slinskey Legg with the rest of the 2006 Gene Team—a mix of high-school students and teachers with Pitt graduate students and faculty. (Tom Altany photo)

Max Garber’s entire field of vision is alive and wriggling. A few quick microscope adjustments and the blurred movements leap into clarity. He's observing hundreds of Caenorhabditis elegans­—tiny worms that look like writhing slivers of glass, each no more than a millimeter in length. Garber passes the tip of a platinum wire through the flame of an alcohol lamp, sterilizing it. He gently inserts the probe into the worm-filled petri dish, working the microscope’s focus knob while trying to maneuver the wire to lift a single worm at a time and deposit it in a gridded tray containing a thin film of pure water. It’s like trying to scoop slick, fast-moving thread with a toothpick. Slippery as riddles, the worms bend into parentheses or commas, eluding Garber’s probe.

Garber, a senior at Quaker Valley High School in Leetsdale, Pa., usually spends his summers rowing down rivers or taking road trips. This year, though, he’s spending most of his summer engaged in work that may actually contribute to the treatment of diseases. His meticulous—and tedious—work with C. elegans­ will help Gary Silverman, a Pitt neonatal researcher and professor of pediatrics, to investigate genetic abnormalities, some of which lead to serious illnesses.

At age 17, Garber is fully engaged in the process of finding genetic mutations in thread-thin worms. It’s genuine, real research. He slides the wire under another worm only to have it curl into a question mark and slip away.

All science begins with a question. That is the maxim of Garber’s lab supervisor, Alison Slinskey Legg. For Garber, that question might be, Is there an easier way to do this? For Slinskey Legg—who hovers nearby—the question is more general: Will ANY of this work?

Slinskey Legg (FAS ’98) is the outreach coordinator for Pitt’s biological sciences department. On this morning, she quietly watches Garber’s efforts, then moves on to observe other researchers hunched over microscopes, wrangling worms.

In fact, Slinskey Legg is in the early stages of an experiment that could significantly improve understanding in the sciences, especially molecular biology. But it isn’t the worms that are the focus of her inquiry. It’s the people—they’re students and teachers from nearby high schools, and today they’re all engaged in the genetic screening of C. elegans.

Together with a small group of Pitt students, researchers, and professors, they form the inaugural Gene Team, a new outreach program that could reshape science education in high school classrooms regionally and nationwide.

In her outreach role, Slinskey Legg develops and runs programs that use the University’s vast resources to improve K-12 science education. She often finds herself in situations like this one: A classroom full of kindergarten students stare at her in disbelief. She has asked the two questions she always asks—“What is a scientist? What does a scientist look like?”—and received the usual responses: “A man,” “A scary man,” “A scary, ugly, mean man.” Now the students are stunned, because Slinskey Legg has just revealed what she does for a living: She’s a scientist.

“When I ask ‘What’s a scientist look like?’, they never describe me,” says Slinskey Legg. “Even when I talk to middle school students, sometimes I’ll still hear, ‘You can’t be a scientist. You’re a girl.’”

Misconceptions about who can become a scientist constitute only one set of the problems plaguing K-12 science education. The National Science Board notes in its 2006 Science and Engineering Indicators report that, in 2000, the proportion of high school graduates completing advanced science courses ranged from 33 to 63 percent. (Only 36 percent completed advanced biology courses.) Based on results from the 2003 Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the Program for International Student Assessment, the board concluded that “despite showing some improvement in mathematics and science performance in recent years, U.S. students continued to lag behind their peers in many developed countries.” This has the potential to handicap the country’s science-based industries and stunt the country’s growth in technological development and scientific innovation. And a lag in science education means fewer graduates who are qualified to teach science, producing a vicious cycle.

The National Science Board also found that, in 2002, between 17 and 28 percent of high school math and science teachers did not have certificates or college majors or minors in their teaching fields; even more middle-grade teachers fall into this category. Slinskey Legg has frequently come across a variation of these findings. “One of the things I hear from high school teachers is that they’re trained in science content, but not trained to do science,” she says.

That’s only the initial challenge many of these teachers face. Often, they lack equipment and have limited resources in general. “Some of the budgets are so tight,” says Slinskey Legg, “teachers can’t afford to run even a simple lab because they can’t buy the materials. And trying to do any kind of scientific experiment during class periods of less than an hour is extremely difficult.”

For years, Pitt has been trying to help. Science outreach efforts have been under way through the University since the 1970s, including ventures like Saturday Science Academies for middle school and high school students, various summer science camps, and even in-class science demonstrations by individual professors.

Early on, the Department of Biological Sciences organized one-day workshops, with Pitt faculty sharing new advances in biology with dozens of high school science teachers. The department’s official outreach program began in 1993 with the help of a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant. The program initially offered two one-week workshops to update teachers’ knowledge of subjects ranging from cell biology to computer skills to aquatic systems. The Pitt Kits program quickly followed, with the University supplying the materials, equipment, and on-site assistance teachers needed to conduct full-fledged experiments in their classrooms. Beginning in 1998, two summer science camps were offered for middle and high school students.

The results of these efforts were noteworthy. “What we saw with the research camps alone was a significant attitude change toward science,” says Slinskey Legg. “After that first high school camp, 12 out of the 16 students contacted me independently and asked if they could get into a lab. They would wash glassware, do whatever needed to be done to be around the science.”

Then, in 2004, Jeff Brodsky, Pitt's Avinoff Professor of Biological Sciences, proposed an idea for a program that would, in effect, merge the student science camps with the teacher workshops. That was the conception of the Gene Team, which became possible in 2006 with a five-year, $1.27 million Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institute for Research Resources, a unit of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Slinskey Legg codirects the team with Lewis Jacobson, an associate professor of biological sciences.

For eight weeks this summer, six high school students, three high school teachers, three Pitt graduate students, two undergraduates, and a handful of professors and researchers worked together as the Gene Team, conducting a series of genetic tests—called screens—to look for or actually create mutations in yeast, bacteria, and C. elegans. The team’s work involved research tasks for three University-affiliated laboratories; the results have the potential to address a range of health problems, including tuberculosis, cancer, and birth defects. As impressive as that already is, it only scratches the surface of the program’s benefits.

“The research done by the Gene Team goes back to the labs that designed the screens,” says Julia van Kessel, a Pitt biology graduate student and the team’s resident bacteria expert. “The high school students and teachers are doing work that either couldn’t be done with the manpower in the labs or that there wasn’t enough time to do. So now we have three labs with three big screens that are getting done while at the same time teaching people about science.”

Which is why Slinskey Legg beams like a mother watching her child take its first steps as Max Garber gets the hang of worm wrangling and is soon depositing worm after worm into the gridded tray. His work with C. elegans is specified by the laboratory of researcher Silverman, who is studying a class of molecules called serpins, which are involved in the regulation of many cell processes. Genetic deficiencies in a certain serpin, for example, can lead to the abnormal breakdown of proteins in the liver and result in hepatitis in newborns. But there are many serpins without a known function, and Garber is looking for genetic mutations in C. elegans that may explain what certain serpins do and what role, if any, they may play in disease development. Specifically, he’s looking for worms that lack a particular serpin called srp-6. Worms that lack this serpin are normal in every way except that they mysteriously perish when placed in pure water. Clearly, lack of srp-6 has consequences—at least for C. elegans. Garber and the rest of the Gene Team are using a screen that helps determine what other types of genetic mutations lead to a similar reaction. Ultimately, this may lead to a better understanding of the roles serpins play in normal development and in certain infections and cancers.

Codirector Jacobson says the team is producing valuable results for all three laboratories’ research programs. “The mutants these students and teachers isolate or construct will presumably be the subjects of ongoing investigations, perhaps for years,” he says.

Over eight weeks, as she watches Garber and the rest of the Gene Team intently focused on their tasks, Slinskey Legg keeps it basic: I think this is working.

Already, the program appears to be the ultimate win-win situation. Not only are high school students enthused about science research and high school teachers equipped with up-to-date knowlege and hands-on practice, but the team’s graduate and undergraduate students benefit, too. They provide instruction in everything from lab procedure to biological principles to how to keep a lab notebook, all of which amounts to priceless teaching experience. A number of graduate students, undergraduates, and even high school students have had their names on manuscripts published in major research journals as a result of their participation.

For the high school students (106 applied for the team’s six spots), being part of the Gene Team means gaining valuable experience with scientific research. Most summer vacations don’t involve polymerase chain reactions or genetic transformations. They also get a healthy dose of exercise for their problem-solving skills.

“Science doesn’t always work,” says van Kessel. “In fact, it usually doesn’t work. Most of the science in high school is cookbook science. It’s things they know will work, that teachers have done a million times. And that’s not what science is like.” Instead, often, the results aren’t obvious; the students must use old-fashioned critical thinking and troubleshooting to figure out what makes sense, what’s going on.

Likewise, the Gene Team’s high school teachers brush up on lab skills and learn new research techniques. But their summer experience is even more far-reaching. They meet weekly with University faculty to develop curriculum materials based on their research, which will then be used back in their classrooms when the program ends. Next year, one-week workshops will train additional teachers on how to use the curriculum materials developed by the first Gene Team’s teachers.

The Gene Team’s quick development is even more remarkable considering the disparity of age and experience among its members. While initially the typical teacher/student, researcher/novice hierarchy was in place, it quickly equalized as teammates became more comfortable with one another and began sharing their knowledge.

“I actually got to watch the Gene Teamers every day go through this process of discovery, watch them learn to use the language of science and change their way of thinking. To be able to see that much growth in such a short time is amazing,” Slinksey Legg says.

Ultimately, she hopes that the Gene Team's efforts and benefits will multiply much like the process of mitosis—the basic process of a cell replicating its DNA and dividing to form two new, identical cells. Using the funds from a new $2.1 million HHMI grant the outreach program just garnered this summer, she plans to replicate her outreach efforts at Allegheny College, her undergraduate alma mater, which is located about 15 miles from Pitt's Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology.

“I get requests from teachers all over the country who want to come take our workshops. The problem is distance. So our idea is to install outreach programs at other institutions of higher learning and teach them how to run it. Then that would be another nucleus to serve their area,” Slinskey Legg says. In the meantime, the outreach program’s teacher workshops are wrapping up their 13th summer, thanks to funding from the H. J. Heinz Company.

Slinskey Legg still visits kindergarten and elementary school classrooms, in some schools boosting enthusiasm for science to the tune of a 300 percent increase in science fair participation. And next summer, the team at Pitt will nearly double in size, with five teachers and 10 students taking part. During the next five years, about 80 teachers will receive training, which will have an impact on more than 10,000 high school students. Ideally, too, Gene Team students will carry on a new, energized perspective on science—and an improved set of skills for navigating life.

At the end of the Gene Team’s first week in the lab, Slinskey Legg stands at the counter of a bakery, trying to explain to a crowd of befuddled bakery employees the phrase she wants them to write in icing on a giant cookie cake. The next morning, she appears at the lab to celebrate the Gene Team’s first major accomplishment: the conclusion of a week-long exercise in which the team members had to maintain test tubes of solution in a perfectly sterile state, free of any contamination, a task more difficult than it sounds. By week’s end, not one tube was contaminated. Hence the odd message scripted in pink icing on the cake Slinskey Legg presents to her cheering teammates: PERFECT STERILE TECHNIQUE. It’s a major Gene Team moment, the first of many milestones along the transformational journey of students and teachers into scientists.

“Being able to think like a scientist is what we’re trying to teach,” she says. “Because no matter what they end up doing in their lives, that skill will serve them well. We’re really in a position to make a difference. How often can you say that in life?”

All science begins with a question.

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