February 23, 2005

C.U. Program Brings Technology to Schools

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Mike Yerky, outreach coordinator for the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers (CIBT), operates a traveling lab, bringing the organizations sophisticated technologies and equipment to classrooms nationwide. Funded through grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the New York State Center for Advanced Technology, Yerky is able to provide unique laboratory opportunities to high school biology students.

To participate in these innovative lab settings, teachers must apply to participate in a 10-day summer training workshop centered on Cornell’s main campus in Ithaca and geared toward helping teachers bring modern biotechnology into classrooms. Teachers receive college credit and a stipend for attending these workshops. After the training session takes place, teachers are eligible to receive a visit from the “road warrior,” as well as obtain free use of modern equipment in the lab setting.

According to Laurel Southard, director of outreach and undergraduate research in biology, CIBT targets both teachers who have taught for a while and lack a broad knowledge in molecular technology as well as new teachers who need activities and lab modules. In both situations, teachers often lack the funding necessary to buy expensive equipment.

That’s where Yerky comes in. Traveling 7,000 miles in a typical season to hundreds of schools in New York State, he visits around 50 classrooms per season with his traveling lab.

He conducts many different types of laboratory programs. According to the CIBT website, some programs he offers include “Using Protein Gel Electrophoresis to Study Evolution” and “Statistics and Probability in Evaluation of DNA Evidence,” among many others. What seems to be one of the most popular ones, however, is “Forensic DNA Amplification: ‘Who Done It?'”

In a recent article in the Hornell Evening Tribune Online, students expressed their gratitude and amazement at the all-day DNA lab brought to their classroom by Yerky.

“It’s really cool the school is able to provide this for us … It’s not stagnant, you can actually be at the forefront of something,” said Arkport School sophomore Brian McCarthy.

Yerky says he has a few different motives for traveling and teaching.

“I like traveling and driving,” he said, adding that he “could never be one of those guys sitting in a classroom all day.”

According to Yerky, one of the most rewarding things is his ability to “facilitate information from top-notch Cornell faculty down to high school biology teachers and eventually students.”

Furthermore, Yerky said that it is very hard for rural districts to find funding for expensive laboratory technology.

After Yerky makes a few visits to teachers’ classrooms, he hopes that he can “wean them off” of his assistance so they can eventually run the lab experiments for their classes without outside assistance. By participating in the CIBT program workshops, teachers are able to obtain any of the equipment from CIBT’s lending library and have it shipped to them free of charge.

Southard mentioned that CIBT is very lucky to be “so well funded.” CIBT has received funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant for 12 years, and also has been funded through grants from Cornell’s New York State Center for Advanced Technology. Southard said that “there are only three programs in the country with that kind of track record [in regard to funding], and we’re one of them.”

With only six staff members at CIBT, Southard said that “everybody works really hard.” She also said that it was worthwhile, adding that “it is such a cool program, we’ve really done a lot for teachers.”

Looking ahead, on March 24, Steve Hamilton, the vice provost for outreach programs, is planning a day on campus for high school teachers to rotate around buildings and complete different activities in varying subjects including the DNA technology labs conducted by Mike Yerky.

Archived article by Stephanie Wickham
Sun Staff Writer