Science teachers become students again in summer workshop

Molecular Biology

Workshop participants discuss the results from a gel electrophoresis experiment with Karen Malatesta (in blue), workshop lab director and senior lecturer in Princeton's molecular biology department. The teachers are, from left: Daniel McKelvey of Central Bucks High School in Buckingham, Pa.; Melissa Miller of Millburn (N.J.) High School; and Amanda Leighton of Moorestown (N.J.) High School.

Photo: John Jameson

Wearing identical white lab coats, 20 high-school teachers huddled around bluish gels they just had subjected to electrophoresis, a process that enabled them to visualize and study DNA fragments. For two weeks every summer, teachers become students again in a Princeton workshop that helps spread enthusiasm for science.

The workshop, "Molecular Biology in the 21st Century: Applications and Dilemmas," is a hands-on laboratory-and-seminar course in which science teachers learn basic molecular biology and come to understand how genetic engineering has altered biology and affected medicine, law, agriculture and everyday life. They then use their new skills and knowledge to perform two independent projects, using state-of-the-art techniques to search for genetic modifications in snack foods and to identify numerous microbes present in soil. The workshop runs through Friday, July 22.

The teachers believe the workshop helps them better serve their students. "I now have a more thorough understanding of the material I'm trying to relate to my students," said Chris James, who teaches at Delaware Valley Regional High School in Frenchtown, N.J., and who spent a recent day with other participants performing experiments they will use in classrooms next year. "I can now say, 'I've done this. I know what happens.'"

The work for these teachers will not end when the workshop does. "They will need to be both dynamic and intellectually curious to take the experiments they're doing here and revise them into a format suitable for their classes," said Karen Malatesta, lab director of the workshop and senior lecturer in Princeton's molecular biology department. "Most teachers don't have hours of class time to spend doing experiments. So that means they need to be a little inventive."

Some workshop alumni prove to be more than a little inventive and go so far as to create entirely new courses based on the summer curriculum, Malatesta noted. She said many are inspired by the accelerated workshop, where they learn several techniques of genetic manipulation, such as DNA testing on a variety of cells, including their own. Gel electrophoresis is one of the methods the teachers use to analyze their experimental results.

The teachers are a diverse group. They come from as far away as California and Minnesota, though most are from New Jersey, and they teach the full range of sciences.

In addition to gaining insights into the newest techniques and research, the teachers learn what is expected of freshmen at Princeton -- enabling them to better prepare their own students for college, Malatesta said. In turn, interacting with the teachers gives Malatesta a sense of what students currently learn in high school, which often influences how she teaches her own courses during the academic year.

The workshop's ultimate goal is to exert a long-lasting influence on and through teachers. During the academic year, outreach coordinator Ann Sliski outfits laboratory loaner kits and makes them available to workshop alumni. Worth $10,000 to $15,000 each, the kits contain all the equipment and supplies teachers need to perform sophisticated laboratory experiments with their students. Malatesta estimates that, if teachers use their loaner kits and newfound knowledge to improve their courses, the summer workshop could expose more than 2,000 additional people to the latest developments in molecular biology by spring 2006.

After completing the workshop, a few select teachers become master teachers. They share their knowledge with science teachers who have not attended the summer workshop by running one of five Molecular Biology Satellite Learning Centers in New Jersey during the academic year.

The annual workshop, one of several outreach programs administered by the molecular biology department, was started in 1991 by Edward Cox, the Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology at Princeton. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, based in Chevy Chase, Md., provides funding for the summer workshop, the satellite learning centers and other programs in the molecular biology department.