by Margaret DeRitter
Regina Stevens-Truss wants teachers to get their students more enthusiastic about science through hands-on learning.
“You can’t get people excited about science from books,” says the Kurt D. Kaufman Associate Professor of Chemistry at Kalamazoo College. “You’ve got to get them dirty, get them doing things.”
To help achieve this goal, she came up with the idea of a program that would pair teachers with working scientists so that together they could provide hands-on opportunities to students. She proposed it to other members of her professional association, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), and the program is now a reality thanks to funding, in part, from the National Science Foundation.
It’s called HOPES, which stands for Hands-on Opportunities to Promote Engagement in Science, and it provides up to 10 grants per year of $2,000 each to teacher/scientist pairs working with kindergarten through 12th-grade students. Stevens-Truss chairs the committee that selects the grant recipients.
“She’s sort of our fearless leader in this,” says Weiyi Zhao, who administers HOPES as an ASMBM staff member. “There’s been a lot of talk among members and scientists about the importance of doing scientific outreach and improving the science curriculum at an earlier level, but she’s been the one to say, ‘Enough talk. We need to do something.’”
HOPES was established in 2011, and one of the grants that year went to a teacher on Long Island, N.Y., whose students do genetic research on Atlantic horseshoe crabs. The project was filmed to be part of an hour-long National Geographic documentary called “Dino-Crab” for the NatGeoWild channel.
Teacher Maria Brown and her students at Sayville High School work on the project in cooperation with scientist John Tanacredi of nearby Dowling College. “The college has a captive breeding center,” says Brown. “They get permits to collect (horseshoe crab) eggs along the beaches of Long Island, and that’s how we were able to do the genetics research.”
Two students began the research four years ago, and two other students are continuing it. In studying whether the Long Island horseshoe crab populations are different from those in the Delaware and Chesapeake bays, the students discovered that even the crab populations in various bays of Long Island are significantly isolated from each other genetically.
Brown says the students love doing the research and were really excited to be filmed for the TV documentary. “There are not a lot of high school kids who can say that,” says Brown. Then she laughs and adds, “There are not a lot of high school teachers who can say that.”
It’s very expensive to do genetics research, so the $2,000 grant was very much appreciated. “It actually went a long way because we got discounts” on the cost of both reagents and genetic sequencing of 200 samples, Brown says.
Both of the students currently involved in the research are planning careers in science and technology — just the kind of outcome Stevens-Truss would like to see from HOPES. Brown’s students even have trained Dowling College students and a faculty member on their research.
Brown’s grant was among 10 given out by HOPES in 2011. Last year seven grant applications were approved.
Stevens-Truss expresses particular enthusiasm about a 2011 HOPES project in New Hampshire in which fourth-graders and their teacher worked with a physiologist for three days. The students used pedometers to gauge the amount of exercise they did, measured their heart rates before and after the exercise, and plotted the data to compare boys versus girls, among other things.
“I fell in love with that project for several reasons,” Stevens-Truss says. “First, because it involved fourth-graders, and we really need to start with them. It also involved developing a hypothesis and talking about ‘How do you think like a scientist?’ The kids were actually able to gather numbers and plot the data to compare things. And the $2,000 grant was used to buy pedometers, something that could be used year after year.”
To generate interest in HOPES, Stevens-Truss conducts a three-hour workshop each year at the ASBMB’s annual conference. She aims the workshop at teachers who want to teach in a more interactive way and scientists who might not know how to get their foot in the door of local schools. “One would think that would be an easy thing, but it isn’t,” she says. “Teachers are overextended, and for them it feels like one more thing, as opposed to us helping them.”
The first year Stevens-Truss led the workshop, it was in Washington, D.C., and most of the approximately 20 attendees were scientists; few teachers attended. The next year, in San Diego, nearly half of the approximately 40 attendees were teachers.
"'Enough talk. We need to do something.'"This year, at the April workshop in Boston, two scientist/teacher pairs were brought in to speak about their projects. Stevens-Truss is planning to lead another workshop in July at Washington State University.
But she doesn’t just encourage others to boost the excitement level in K-12 science teaching. She also goes into local schools herself to show students that science can be fun. Later this year she plans to work with Kalamazoo fifth-graders on Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week activities. And for 10 years, she led a program called Sisters in Science, which had K students working with students from Kalamazoo’s Northglade Elementary School. The program, which is led by another professor now, was started in part to support sixth-grade girls who showed an aptitude in science.
No matter what grade level she’s teaching, Stevens-Truss puts her preaching about hands-on science education into practice. At Kalamazoo College, she requires that students in her Introductory Chemistry classes design their own research projects, and she encourages them to consider careers in science education.
She brings not only a teacher’s concerns but a scientist and parent’s perspective to her efforts. She and her husband have two sons, the youngest of whom will be a freshman at K in the fall and plans to major in chemistry. In the summer, when she’s not teaching at K, Stevens-Truss works on research related to Alzheimer’s disease.
She credits her own teachers for making science interesting when she was growing up in Panama and after she moved to the U.S. at age 13. She especially liked lab work and remembers being amazed to see a substance in a test tube change from one color to another. “I thought, ‘What the heck?’”
That’s the kind of excitement she’d like to see among today’s young students, and she’s hopeful that the HOPES program can help make that happen in ever-broadening circles.
“The majority of public schools across the nation don’t have the proper resources or proper training to keep students involved and engaged,” she says. “ASBMB gave me a platform to do that, and we’ve had some really fantastic projects come out of it. For me, it would be nice if this could go viral.”
Photo 1 - Regina Stevens-Truss, the Kurt D. Kaufman Associate Professor of Chemistry at Kalamazoo College.
Photo 2 - Regina helps children conduct a hands-on experiment about the chemistry of ice cream.