Scientists Delve Into Public Education

By Sean Cavanagh — January 06, 2009 6 min read
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A visit to the campus of a newly built research center here offers a glimpse of Alabama’s economic heritage and, quite possibly, its economic future.

A cotton field, once the lifeblood of the South, borders the headquarters of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, occasionally sending wisps of white blowing across its parking lot. Inside the four-story, $70 million office complex, scientists conduct genetics and genomics research with the potential to transform medicine, as well as agriculture and energy.

Since the HudsonAlpha Institute opened last April, its leaders have sought to channel the organization’s financial and intellectual acumen toward another goal: improving science education. The institute is one of many scientific organizations around the country, include both philanthropies and for-profit companies, that have tried to raise the quality of state and district science instruction through direct involvement in teacher training, curriculum, and the sharing of their scientific personnel and resources with schools.

Like other scientific groups, HudsonAlpha is motivated partly by a desire to cultivate a pool of future employees capable of building and sustaining its industry. Biotechnology companies need workers with varying degrees of skill, from entry-level technicians to scientists with advanced degrees.

“If we can interest them in science in middle school, we begin to build relationships with that future workforce,” said Neil Lamb, the institute’s director of educational outreach. “Before they get into the workforce, they’ve had a pretty long line of biotech experiences.”

Biology in the Rocket City

Yet HudsonAlpha officials have another purpose in mind: broadening the public’s understanding of biotechnology—in simple terms, the use of living things and biological processes to make or modify products, such as medicine. The institute is trying to present a broad view of the science, Mr. Lamb said, from the goals of biotechnology to how research is carried out to ethical issues in the field.

Alabama students and parents are ultimately “consumers and policymakers,” who have the power to influence the biotech industry in the state and across the country, said Mr. Lamb, who has a Ph.D. in human genetics.

The HudsonAlpha Institute was started by Jim Hudson, the founder and former chief executive of Research Genetics Inc., a Huntsville company involved in the groundbreaking Human Genome Project, which sought to identify and sequence human genes and DNA and produce breakthroughs across the sciences.

Sara Seale, 17, examines a test tube during a hands-on experiment at Huntsville High School in Alabama last month. The state of Alabama has taken several steps, with support from the business community, to try to improve math and science education.

Mr. Hudson wanted to set up a nonprofit institute that would channel the genome project’s work into creating individualized therapies for medicine. He and other backers raised $80 million in private donations, and the state of Alabama put an additional $50 million toward the project. Mr. Hudson also recruited Rick Myers, an Alabama native renowned for his own work on the Human Genome Project, from the Stanford Human Genome Center.

A central goal of the institute is to strengthen links between bioscience research and entrepreneurship. Its design reflects that goal.

One half of HudsonAlpha’s 270,000-square-foot building is occupied by the nonprofit institute, which promotes biotechnology research, business growth, and education. On the opposite side of the office complex, which is divided by an open, wood-and-glass-filled atrium, 14 biotechnology companies lease space and conduct for-profit research.

At first glance, northern Alabama might seem an unlikely setting for such an enterprise, when measured against the country’s more prominent government and academic research hubs.

But this is Huntsville, a city that has been linked with scientific and technological innovation since the 1950s, when Wernher von Braun and other German rocket scientists were recruited to help launch the U.S. space program. The city of 170,000 and the surrounding county are home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, and dozens of aerospace and technology companies and defense contractors. The city boasts the highest per-capita concentration of engineers in the country, according to the Huntsville-Madison County Chamber of Commerce. And the area’s school districts outperforms state test averages in several subjects, including math and science.

Biotechnology industries have gained a foothold in Alabama, and in the Huntsville region, in recent years. Today, 90 biotech-related companies are either doing business or have headquarters in the state, according to the Alabama Development Office, a state agency. HudsonAlpha hopes to create at least 800 jobs within five years.

The organization’s education efforts are moving forward on several fronts. One program is an eight-lesson middle school module on genetics, which HudsonAlpha crafted in cooperation with the Alabama education department.

Real-World Lab Work

One day last fall, 7th graders at Liberty Middle School, outside Huntsville, took part in one of those lessons, on the structure and composition of DNA and how scientists extract it. Working in small groups, students put strawberries in plastic bags and crushed them, then added a small amount of lysis—detergent and salt—which broke down the fruit’s cell membrane.

The students then filtered the strawberry liquid and poured it on top of cold alcohol, causing the strawberries’ DNA to clump and become visible. The students recorded observations throughout.

One participant was Alexa Wade, who said she counts science as her second-favorite subject, after math.

Science is about “new things,” the 12-year-old said, after crushing strawberries, and “genetics is new to me.” Through that lab activity and others, she has learned that all living things have DNA, but with unique characteristics.

HudsonAlpha devised its middle school modules on behalf of the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative, a state-run endeavor to improve instruction and offer schools improved resources in those subjects.

The institute is also designing biotech labs for another AMSTI program, called Alabama Science in Motion, which arranges to have customized vans, acting as mobile science labs, sent from regional hubs to high schools.

In another high school program, the institute is creating biotech courses for the state’s career and technical education program for students headed either to college or into the job market. The first of those courses, a semester-long class, will begin next school year, focusing on the hands-on skills used in biotech fields.

In addition, HudsonAlpha hosts summer camps for K-12 students both on its own and in cooperation with community colleges, and arranges visits to its campus for classes and individual teachers. More than 700 students and 1,300 teachers took part in institute-sponsored discussions and activities during the 2007-08 school year.

The institute also lends its scientific talent to local schools. One such arrangement allowed a team of scientists guide a recent lab on enzymes for an Advanced Placement Biology class at Huntsville High School.

The visiting scientists, who included Huntsville-area postsecondary faculty members, were led by Bob Zahorchak, a former biotech-company executive and college professor who now administers an intern program at HudsonAlpha.

Enzymes are proteins produced by living cells, which serve as catalysts in biochemical reactions. They are instrumental in producing foods, such as bread and cheese, fuels like ethanol, and countless other substances. The lab is aimed at helping students understand that process and how quickly it takes place.

The institute also has lent about $12,000 worth of equipment, including a spectrometer for measuring light, for the class, and the scientists are helping students use it.

“They get to work with equipment, and they get to interact with scientists,” said Leslie Machen, the AP Biology teacher who usually leads the class. The professional scientists, she added, show students how “what they’re learning in class is used in an occupation.”

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Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Scientists Delve Into Public Education

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