The William & Mary School of Education is a graduate program at our college that trains teachers and educators. They have many connections to educators and in the local school district, so we got into contact with them early in the project.
1. STEM Education Alliance: Greg Marsh
The first person we contacted was Greg Marsh from the STEM Education Alliance, a program in the School of Education that focuses on raising student interest in pursuing careers in STEM. Mr. Marsh met with us and gave us advice on how to make sure we could have a positive impact on students by working with teachers. He gave us feedback on how to improve the Synthetic Biology Activities Booklet that was created by the 2015 W&M iGEM team. Mr. Marsh also told us the importance of integrating state learning standards into any outreach for teachers and advised us to emphasize how learning about synthetic biology could potentially lead to future careers. From this meeting, we realized the importance of integrating our goal of educating our community about synthetic biology with the needs of teachers and students.
2. The Center for Gifted Education: Dr. Mihyeon Kim
We reached out to Dr. Kim toward the beginning of the project because Mr. Marsh suggested that a good way of working directly with students might be through summer camps. Every year, the Center for Gifted Education runs Camp Launch, a residential STEM summer camp for 7th and 8th grade students. We were interested in potentially collaborating with them to work with students and teach them about synthetic biology. Dr. Kim told us that students would enjoy visiting our lab and put us in with Deanna Marroletti, one of the teachers in charge of the camp.
After our meeting, Dr. Kim got in touch with us about a career fair for middle school students during the summer. She invited us to present to students about doing research on synthetic biology.
3. STEM Education Alliance: Kelley Clark
During the summer, we tried to get in touch with the science coordinator for the Williamsburg-James City County school district, but the person who had been working in the position had left and the district had not yet replaced her. We got into contact with Mr. Marsh again, and he directed us to his colleague, Ms. Clark. Ms. Clark had connections with Kristin Cosby, the head of the science department at Jamestown High School. After telling Ms. Clark about our outreach goals and who we were, she helped us arrange a meeting with Ms. Cosby to initiate this collaboration.
Strengthening Outreach Strategy to Schools: Meeting with Kristin Cosby
Kristin Cosby is an AP Chemistry teacher from Jamestown High School, a nearby school. She is also the head of the science department at her school. One of our contacts at the STEM Education Alliance at the William & Mary School of Education connected us with her during the summer. Kristin kindly visited our lab and met with us during the summer to discuss with us how we could better act as a resource for public school teachers and students in the area. She said she had no idea there were so many science resources available at our college, as they are not publicized to people in the public school system, and was very enthusiastic to work with us in the future. She helped us arrange a small teacher focus group and remained involved in our outreach activities, bringing her son to one of the Bioengineering Speaker Series events!
Strengthening the W&M Link and Expanding Outreach to Entire Surrounding School District: Collaboration with State Senator Monty Mason
We met with Senator Monty Mason in our lab to talk to him about the outreach we do, and we mutually decided to explore a more in-depth collaboration with the local school district.
As a follow up to our initial meeting, we sent Senator Mason a proposal for our collaboration with teachers and principals. We suggested acting as a resource for teachers based on their needs, whether that was with curriculum planning, teacher workshops, lab visits, or helping to apply for grants. We had a follow-up meeting with Senator Mason to talk more in-depth about helping public school teachers in the surrounding school district. He told us that he felt that teachers could benefit from the resources we had developed and that he could connect us to some of the leaders in the local public school systems.
After the meeting, he kindly put us in touch with Tami Byron, the K-12 STEM coordinator for the entire Newport News public school system, which has a total enrollment of about 29,000 students and 37 elementary, middle, and high schools. He put is in touch with her so we could get a clear idea of how we could collaborate and what resources we could offer her school district.
Fitting the Context of Local Educators: Meeting with Tami Byron, K-12 STEM Coordinator for a Local School District
After Senator Mason introduced us to Tami Byron, we arranged for her to come visit our lab to talk to us about the needs of her school district and discuss how we can address them. She told us that it is difficult to balance the demands of having students score well on tests with allowing students to explore biology in a fun and hands-on way. She was excited by the possibility of having our lab act as a resource and wanted to know whether undergraduate students could act as mentors for high school students conducting biology independent projects. In particular, she wanted to explore our assistance in involving students at the district’s science magnet school in hands-on activities in synthetic biology. Going forward, we are currently working on arranging a focus group with interested teachers from the Newport News school district, to further refine our strategy for acting as a resource for them and their students. Additionally, based on her feedback, we assessed how synthetic biology learning activities can fit into state-mandated learning requirements.
Exploring Needs of Public Educators: High School Educator Focus Group
We connected with Kristin Cosby, the head of the science department at Jamestown High School, through our contacts in the School of Education. After our initial meeting with her, she helped us organize a meeting with teachers from various high schools in our local school district. She also invited the K-12 science coordinator from the Williamsburg-James City County public school system. We had a small, informal meeting in our lab to get feedback from teachers about what they need and what we can do for them in our outreach.
Prior to the meeting, we reached out to the Biology Club at our college, which currently includes members from Lafayette High School. We asked them if they would be willing to present to the teachers about their club and student biology research projects, and also expand their reach to include more high school students. They agreed and presented their club to the teachers as a possible resource for students who are enthusiastic about biology.
We also told teachers about resources that we would be able to offer them, such as educational material, teacher workshops, lab visits for students, and teacher training. The teachers then told us about what they would like out of a potential partnership.
They said that although many of the high school teachers were knowledgeable about engineering, biology, and synthetic biology, there are strict rules that prevent them from performing most hands-on biology activities and experiments. Additionally, they felt that due to this lack of ability for students to learn through doing the science, many students felt disinterested. The teachers also expressed their concern that students felt disconnected from the teachers due to their age differences and therefore felt that even when the teachers showed enthusiasm about science, it did not translate to the students. The science coordinator expressed that most of the elementary school science teachers did not actually have scientific backgrounds, and felt uncomfortable teaching about science because of this. Although there was a need for improved biology programs in the high schools, a lot of the problems with science education stems from deficiencies that start at the elementary and middle school levels. We were surprised to hear this. Prior to the meeting, we had thought that the problems with biology and synthetic biology education stemmed from teachers simply not being familiar with newer advances in the field and that teaching educators about synthetic biology could address the lack of instruction on this subject in classrooms. Additionally, teachers wanted resources for general science education, not just synthetic biology education. This meeting helped us better understand the needs within the public school system so that we could design more effective future education outreach activities.