Public Release:  Partnering with community groups improves K-12 science education

Bringing teachers up to speed

Washington University in St. Louis

The recent revolution in the life sciences- the sequencing of the human genome, and development of "high throughput" technologies- has created new opportunities for investigation, and created new challenges for educators. Sarah C.R. Elgin, Ph.D., professor of biology; biochemistry and molecular biophysics; and education in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has been a proponent and creator of partnerships locally and nationwide to improve the life science education both in K-12 schools and at the undergraduate level.

"Biology has changed very recently," Elgin said. "It's tough for a secondary school teacher to keep up with the advances, so we need partnerships to accomplish this."

St. Louis, like many other cities, has risen to the occasion with partnerships such as the Math-Science Partnership (directed by Washington University Arts & Sciences Dean Edward S. Macias and Victoria May, Washington University outreach director in biology) and the Center for Inquiry in Science Teaching and Learning (directed by William Tate, Ph.D., Washington University professor and chair of education) at Washington University. These partnerships, which include informal science institutions as well as academic partners, provide curriculum materials as well as professional development for teachers and educators to help them stay on top of the biological advances that are happening each day.

Partnerships, while a seemingly logical application of university and college resources, are not always easy to initiate or to maintain.

However, Elgin has a proven track record of engendering productive partnerships and then evaluating them to continually improve the process. A dedicated scientist, she wants to make sure that each undergraduate student, each secondary educator; in fact, each interested individual, can explore the wonders of laboratory science if they so choose.

Elgin spoke at 8:30 a.m. (Central), Feb. 17, 2006, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held Feb. 16-20 in St. Louis.

Through funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), she recently developed and co-teaches along with Washington University colleagues Elaine Mardis and Jeremy Buhler a course in genomic sequencing methods for undergraduate biology majors at Washington University. This course, which engages students in a collaborative sequencing project, requires a partnership between the Departments of Biology, Genetics, and Computer Science, along with the Genome Sequencing Center. After three successful semesters of running and teaching the course, Elgin now wants to generate an online version of the course so that professors at other colleges and universities will be able to participate with their students.

Ultimately, she hopes to make the course available to faculty across the nation who would come to Washington University for a three- or four- day "crash" course in how to use the software to finish and annotate sequencing data as part of their own laboratory courses in genomics. The beauty of the genome sequencing "exercise" is that the students make a novel contribution to science and are not merely "reinventing the wheel." They learn to fill in the gaps, or finish a fosmid, and to annotate the genes.

"By partnering with scientists using sequence data for a variety of problems, we hope to put the students to work in a student-scientist partnership that will lead to new, publishable findings," says Elgin. "Working hard to make sure the data you generate is valid makes a lot more sense when you know your work will be a novel contribution to the data base."

Although bringing diverse groups together can be a challenge, Sarah Elgin and her colleagues are working their hardest to ensure partnerships in the St. Louis area raise great scientists.

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-Jennie Iverson

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