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Lab visit prepares elementary teachers for new science standards

Lab Visit Helps Prepare Elementary Teachers for New Science Standards

Photo: Yiming Li, at far left, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Danielle Benoit, professor of biomedical engineering, shows Rochester City School District elementary teachers how they can use materials in their classrooms to do a “tube inversion test” – an experiment to evaluate the relative viscosity of gels – to help their students understand basic scientific concepts that underly the work done in the Benoit lab. The teachers, left to right, are Kalinda Moore, Heather Sommer, Curtis Birthwright, and Gladys Lopez. (University of Rochester photo / Bob Marcotte) 



How are hydrogelsand other biomaterials used for tissue repair and targeted drug delivery?

That was the topic of the day recently when a group of Rochester City School District elementary teachers visited the lab of Danielle Benoit, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Rochester.

Clearly, this is not a topic an elementary teacher would need to know as part of a typical second-grade lesson plan. But that was precisely the point, says Marie Rice, a city school district teacher who helped facilitate the visit.

“As adults, we’re used to being the person who knows everything, especially when we’re working with our students,” says Rice. “So, one of the great things about this set of workshops is that it puts our teachers back in the role of a learner, so they can experience what it’s like from a student’s perspective.”

That way the teachers can better appreciate the importance of observing, asking questions and seeking clarification—three of the competencies they will need their students to master, Rice explained.

The visit was part of a Warner School/Rochester School District partnership to help prepare public school educators for new science and math standards they’ll be expected to implement in their classrooms. And the members of Benoit’s biomedical engineering lab were more than happy to help.

Four postdocs, five PhD students, two laboratory technicians, and an undergraduate student joined Benoit in presenting four lab demonstrations on how:

  • the lab adjusts the stiffness of hydrogels to precisely mimic the environment that different types of tissue cells need to survive.
  • RGD peptides can be used to attach cells to hydrogels.
  • materials with hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions can form nanoparticles for drug delivery.
  • tissue arrays grown in microbubbles can speed up the testing of therapeutic drugs. 

However, lab members also suggested experiments the teachers could use in their classrooms to illustrate basic scientific concepts that underly much of their research.

For example, postdoctoral fellow Yiming Li showed the teachers how to do a “tube inversion test”—an experiment to evaluate the relative viscosity of gels. “This experiment can be done in classrooms where students can make gels using different ratios of JELLO powder and water,” Li explained. 

“I liked everything we were learning this morning,” Cassandra Dearring, a 6th-grade teacher at Wilson Foundation Academy, said during a lunch break. “And as I was listening and learning, I was wondering how I can apply it and connect it with the children in my classes?"

A new understanding of science education

Dearring is one of 150 Rochester City School District elementary teachers who are spending a total of 45 hours learning about the new standards, visiting UR research labs to see how science is practiced in the real world, and then figuring out how to apply what they’ve learned in ways that will make science education more meaningful for their students.

“We want to help change their understandings of science education,” says Michael Occhino, director of science education outreach at the Warner School’s Center for Professional Development and Education Reform, whose office is partnering with the school district with federal funding support channeled through the State Department of Education.

Based on the “Framework for K–12 Science Education” developed by the National Research Council and the “Next Generation Science Standards,” New York State’s new science standards outline three “dimensions” that are needed to provide students with a high-quality science education:

  • The core ideas that students need to learn in each discipline.
  • The “cross-cutting” concepts, such as patterns; cause and effect; and scale, proportion, and quantity that have application across all domains of science.
  • The science and engineering practices that scientists employ, such asking questions and defining problems, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data.

“The biggest shift is thinking about the science and engineering practices—what it is that scientists and engineers do, and making that part of the content,” Occhino says. “We’re weaving together all three of those strands into a really strong rope. By including science and engineering practices with cross cutting concepts and core disciplinary ideas, you are able to engage students in doing meaningful science.”

Daily logs and mixers catch their eye

So, during their visit to the Benoit lab, it was not surprising that many of the teachers were interested in the daily log postdoctoral fellow Ken Sims kept while doing experiments to develop a drug-delivery system targeting dental plaque. Sims showed the teachers his detailed notes, including diagrams and mathematical calculations.

“Our kids are supposed to maintain lab books too, but a lot of teachers don’t know what the lab books should actually contain,” Rice said. “What’s the standard of practice? So now we’re walking away with a unified sense of what their logs should contain, to adequately prepare them for doing science in the future.”
 Elementary teachers prepare for new science standards
Cassandra Dearring, a 6th-grade teacher at Wilson Foundation Academy, uses a Fisher Vortex Genie-2 device to quickly mix materials in a test tube. (University of Rochester photo / Bob Marcotte)

Even a Fisher Vortex Genie-2 device in one of the labs—used to quickly mix materials in a test tube—caught the eye of Dearring.

“Kids would love using that, and it would start giving them a sense of the kinds of tools that scientists use to do their research, at a young age,” she said.

That’s why Li and the other students didn’t mind pitching in. “I think the ‘teach the teachers’ program is very valuable and beneficial for us, the teachers and their students,” Li says. “This activity can definitely make broader impact by sharing our scientific research and ideas with the people outside the scientific fields, in a relatively easy and understandable way.

“Additionally, teachers and students can learn what kinds of cutting-edge research and advanced science are going on in labs, which can potentially raise students’ interests and passion for science. This can be a way to cultivate the next generation of scientists.”