November 9, 2010

Graduate Students Are Going Back to School

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In Ms. Coston’s science class at Waverly High School, the students are listening to a lecture on muscle contraction and relaxation given by their resident scientist, John Huynh grad, biomedical engineering (BME). Huynh explains that there is a neural pathway, along which neurotransmitters stimulate cells to release signals that tell skeletal muscles to contract. As he is in the middle of describing how certain animals use venom to inhibit their prey’s muscle contractions, paralyzing them, a student raises his hand.

“What is botox?”

Botox, in fact, is botulin toxin (a poison produced by Clostridium botulinum) used to remove wrinkles by temporarily paralyzing facial muscles. The question catches Huynh off guard, but he is excited at having accomplished his goal: to engage students in science by helping them see its applications to real life.

Huynh and nine other BME graduate students participated in Cornell’s Learning Initiative in Medicine and Bioengineering (CLIMB) in the 2009-2010 academic year. The five-year initiative is funded through the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 program, which stands for Graduate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Fellows in K-12 Education. Fellows partner with science teachers to create an inquiry-driven curriculum module based on their own original research, as well as give lectures and assist with labs.

To effectively communicate science to students, the fellows must first develop a conceptual framework of their own research. Prof. Chris Schaffer, biomedical engineering, stressed that a conceptual frameworks of key ideas was particularly important for interdisciplinary fields like BME so that conversations can build bridges between disciplines, rather than get lost in technical details.

“As a Ph.D student, you have to be extremely detail-oriented … by the time you publish a Ph.D thesis, you know more about that topic than any individual on the planet [but] if you can communicate a complicated science idea to a seventh grader, then you can talk to anybody,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer personally witnessed the transformative effect of developing a conceptual framework in a graduate student, who took the initiative to do outreach even before CLIMB was started. In deciding what core ideas from his research were important for others to know, the student gained a perspective that allowed him to design a generation of optical instruments better than the ones Schaffer had designed.

“The ones who just plugged away in the lab at detail-oriented stuff — at the end of the day — had this excellent, super-detailed exploration of a problem, and yet lacked that broader perspective we all felt was so important,” Schaffer said.

The BME faculty, in addition to realizing the benefits of outreach for their graduate students, also saw their interdisciplinary field as well suited for engaging young students in science. Seemingly separate disciplines — biology, chemistry, and physics — interact in BME research to produce technologies that benefit humans.

“The goal is to help students understand that science is not a collection of facts and theories that have been compiled in science textbooks … science is a dynamic, very human process for discovery of new information, and after it’s been discovered, then it’s science reference material again,” Schaffer said.

CLIMB’s inquiry-based approach to science education seeks to simulate the process of actively acquiring knowledge. In his research, Huynh uses gels to mimic the stiffness of healthy and atherosclerotic blood vessels. For his module, he had the students mix different ratios of “solution A” and “solution B” to create gels of varying stiffness.

He also instructed each lab group to quantify the gels’ stiffness using only a ruler and stopwatch. One group measured how high the gels bounced, another measured how long it took for each gel to drag to be six inches, and yet another measured the diameter of gels after being allowed to flatten for a set period of time. The students were not told the effect of mixing different ratios of the two solutions or how to quantify the gels’ stiffness, rather they discovered these ideas for themselves.

While the inquiry-based method is well supported by the educational research, there is a low level of implementation. Such an approach requires careful planning and is limited by the strict curriculum teachers must follow in order to prepare their students for New York’s Regents exams. Many teachers would be ill equipped to design inquiry-based curriculums given that they lack a science background. CLIMB addresses this through a preliminary six-week program, in which the teachers participate in their fellow’s experiment and attend a “crash course” taught by BME faculty.

Jamie Saroka, a Lansing High School chemistry teacher who is partnered with a  graduate fellow Robby Bowles, was listed as an author on a research abstract. Through the summer program, he “realized how much the straight disciplines are smeared, where it isn’t just physics anymore or just chemistry, but rather it’s a combination of those things […] that helps solve problems.”

Bowles extends on Saroka’s comment by echoing Schaffer to say, “there’s a lot of people who are great at technical scientific work but are not going to develop the next big step in scientific thought because they’re not creative.” He wants young students to know that if they are creative, there is a place for them, not only in the artistic world, but also in the scientific world.

Ultimately, one of CLIMB’s goals is to have graduate students play a part in making science more accessible to K-12 teachers and students. “There’s generally a tone in schools that science is hard, math is hard. It doesn’t have to be if you start early enough, if you have good teachers, [if the] administration values what science can bring to the individual,” senior lecturer Shivaun Archer said.

Original Author: Jing Jin