by Meredith Wright, Undergraduate Molecular Biology Major
The tables were turned as teachers became students at this year's annual workshop for high school teachers, a component of the year-round Princeton Molecular Biology Outreach Program. This summer's workshop, titled "Molecular Biology Hands-On: Cool Genes, Colorful Proteins," drew 19 high school teachers from across the country.
The program, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was started by Princeton professor Ted Cox in 1999 as a one-week teacher workshop. The present-day program has been expanded to a 2-week workshop and year-long access to loaner kits, 10 satellite learning centers across the country, a Science and Engineering Expo, and more.
"The goals of the program are to make cutting-edge molecular biology possible in the secondary school classroom,"explained Dr. Ann Sliski, who directs and runs the year-long program. This goal is achieved through a packed schedule of lab sessions, led by Dr. Heather Thieringer, as well as afternoon talks and discussions.
"In 20 years of teaching, I have never had such an extraordinary professional development program such as this," said Jessica Chase of West Laurens High School, GA. "I wanted to be able to bring molecular biology to my classroom. HHMI and Princeton University have given me the training and the tools to do that, so my students will be able to compete with other students who are already doing this type of work in high school classrooms within a regional university outreach program."
The teachers experience a number of different labs during the workshop, which include but are not limited to testing snack foods to determine if their ingredients are genetically modified and amplifying their own DNA. Dr. Sliski and Dr. Thieringer keep the labs up to date from year to year, incorporating more epigenetic discussion into the projects this summer. The team also changes projects based on teacher feedback. Last year, a lab utilizing rhizobia, a nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria which lives on root nodules of leguminous plants, was implemented for the first time and was brought back this year as well.
The teachers were amazed at the pink color of the root nodules, so this year we are focused on the protein leghemoglobin," Sliski said. Leghemoglobin is a nitrogen or oxygen-carrying protein which is produced by legumes as part of a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria. "We amplified for leghemoglobin from their nodule DNA." Sliski also explained that Dr. Shuchismita Dutta, of the Rutgers Protein Data Bank, would give a bioinformatics module on leghemogobin structure and evolution to the teachers as part of the project.
"Dr. Sliski's rhizobium experiment has remained entrenched in my thoughts," said Darryl Williams of Woodrow Wilson High School in NJ. "I will be looking for ways to inspire the members of the science department to work together to bring some, if not all of the experiment we performed while at Princeton to their students. My fundamental goal is to facilitate as many activities as possible using biotechnology to raise the level of both the educators and inspire interested students to want to do more in the way of investigations."
"These teachers have given up their summer to bring new topics and experiments to their students," Sliski said. "They deserve a lot of credit at a time when teachers are coming under fire. Many of them will go back and encourage their colleagues to try these experiments and attend future workshops. This is why we have started 10 satellite learning centers around the country. I support them during the school year with equipment, reagents and supplies so they can be successful in the classroom."
Teachers interviewed mentioned that the program allowed them to refresh their biology lab skills for current technology as well as brainstorm with other teachers about the best ways to implement the skills in their own schools.
"So much of what is now done in the lab was not a part of my undergraduate education, even though I majored in Biology," Phyllis Robinson of St. Andrew's Episcopal School, MD said. "It's good to see what is current, what is applicable to my students, and what cutting edge research is going on, as presented by the lunchtime guest lectures." These lectures included presentations from various members of Princeton's Molecular Biology Department, including Dr. Fred Hughson, Dr. Eric Wieschaus, and President Shirley Tilghman among others.
"All of the speakers shone with their presentations," Melanie Narish of Mesa Preparatory Academy, AZ said. "The combination of the different specialties demonstrated how linked all scientific research is. They really emphasized the importance of teamwork for the progress of science, and I hope to pass on that message to my students."
Teachers can learn more about the Princeton Molecular Biology Outreach Program and keep an eye out for next year's application here: www.hhmi.princeton.edu.
"Many thanks to all the great people at Princeton," Steve Lyons of Ponte Vedra High School, FL said. "It was like academic Disney World."
PHOTO CREDITS: Russell Clarke, Ann Sliski, and Meredith Wright