Teachers Partner With Students in Science Lab

By Sean Cavanagh — January 21, 2009 6 min read
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When biology teacher Jessica L. McSwain guided students through a recent lab activity on genetic transformation, a colleague worked alongside her who understood exactly what she hoped to accomplish.

Not a fellow teacher, or even a teacher-in-training. A 17-year-old student.

The educator from Hilltop High School, outside San Diego, is one of about 200 teachers who have taken part in an unusual professional-development effort, which trains teachers and students together and has them work side by side in the classroom on science labs. Students in the program, called BioBridge, are expected to serve as leaders after they complete the training and return to class, helping their classmates make sense of the lab activity.

Schools often use students as “peer tutors” in science and other classes. But a number of observers say it is far less common for a professional-development program to have educators work so closely with their young charges in the hope of bringing about classroom improvement.

Yet that cooperation occurs regularly at Hilltop High, where last week Ms. McSwain was assisted in labs in four separate biology classes by Katie Talmadge, a junior with a keen interest in science.

The day before those labs, Ms. Talmadge, the 17-year-old, helped the teacher set up equipment and student kits. The day of the activity on genetics, the student checked those materials again. As the activity began, she moved from lab station to lab station, helping students who were working in small groups.

Some students had difficulty grasping the instructions. Others were confused by the content or the scientific terminology. Ms. Talmadge tried to explain it, one teenager to another.

“Students are grateful,” Ms. Talmadge said. “A lot of students like science, but they’re hesitant to push forward.” Sometimes, she added, “a kid that’s more rebellious will give me more respect because I’m their age.”

Transforming Instruction

Ms. McSwain was counting on those sorts of connections when she recruited Ms. Talmadge to take part in the BioBridge program last school year. Ms. Talmadge was then a sophomore taking biology. She has moved on to chemistry since then, but she agreed to help Ms. McSwain with this year’s class of biology students when they worked on the genetics labs.

BioBridge was created in the 2006-07 academic year by faculty and staff members at the University of California, San Diego, who were interested in improving the quality of high school lab teaching. University officials originally set up two lab projects, on the topics of bacterial transformation and protein purification. Those activities were developed by the Tsien Laboratory, a research center at UC-San Diego led by the Nobel Prize-winning scientists Roger Y. Tsien. More lab topics have been added then.

Mr. Tsien was awarded the prize for his work in the discovery and study of the green fluorescent protein. First observed in a jellyfish, the protein has allowed researchers to devise ways to observe processes that were previously invisible, such as how cancer cells are spread.

The goal of the transformation lab is to help students understand how genes can be moved from one organism to another in order to change an organism’s traits, a process used in biotechnology. Using relatively basic materials ”test tubes, lamps, ice, and a “water bath,” students transform the bacteria to enable it to produce fluorescent protein, which glows, allowing for the observation of the transformation.

Teachers who sign up for the BioBridge program attend a full-day workshop at the UC-San Diego campus, in which they discuss and plan lab activities. They also visit the university’s research labs.

Participating teachers then recruit three or four of their students to serve as in-class leaders. The teachers and students work together at a Saturday workshop, held at a local high school, to plan the labs. The students also attend sessions at that same site on how to be effective classroom leaders.

Working directly with students in planning and carrying out science lessons is a new experience for most teachers, and for some it can be an awkward one, Ms. McSwain acknowledged.

At first, she said, she wasn’t sure which students to choose or how prepared they would be to guide their classmates. Ms. McSwain’s own relative youth—she’s 30 and been told she looks almost as young as her students—added to her initial unease, she recalled jokingly.

“It’s odd” for students at the outset, as well, Ms. McSwain said. “You’re recruiting them into a kind of club. You kind of don’t know what they’re thinking. You’ve got them there on a Saturday,” she added, “and they’re doing science.”

Over time, however, Ms. McSwain said, that process has grown easier. She said she doesn’t always choose the top students to take part in BioBridge, though some have a strong interest in science. Katie Talmadge, for instance, plans to study marine biology in college.

“Our relationship has definitely grown,” Ms. McSwain says of her students, whose communication skills she has come to admire. “A kid can tell a kid something and they’ll learn it,” she added, but teachers sometimes feel as if they can “tell them something 10 times and they won’t learn it.”

BioBridge got its start in California’s 42,000-student Sweetwater Union High School District, which includes Hilltop High School, but it now works with teachers from three other San Diego-area districts, too. So far, at least 200 teachers and as many as 1,000 student-leaders have gone through the program, now in its third year, said Jeremy Babendure, an assistant adjunct professor of pharmacological sciences who directs BioBridge. The program has received about $7.5 million in public and private funding since its inception, including grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, in Chevy Chase, Md.

Introverts Welcome

Students who take part in BioBridge, perhaps not surprisingly, tend to be accomplished in science, Mr. Babendure said. Some want to develop leadership skills; others may participate for extra credit, he said. Teachers are encouraged not to pick only A-plus students, he added, but also those below the top tier with a knack for motivating their peers.

One encouraging result of BioBridge is that it has drawn a fair number of shy students, particularly girls, who emerge from it with confidence and a deeper interest in biology, Mr. Babendure observed.

“We’re hoping to show that it’s cool being good at science,” he said.

The directors of BioBridge have modified the program over time in an attempt to increase its effectiveness and reach. One step was for the program to establish a Leadership Society of participating students to encourage them to take pride in their mentoring and continue serving even after they have completed their biology studies, as Ms. Talmadge has. Five hundred students count themselves as society members, Mr. Babendure estimates.

Help with labs typically ranks high on the list of science teachers’ professional-development needs, said Zipporah A. Miller, the associate executive director for professional development and conferences at the National Science Teachers Association. But it’s rare for those development programs to bring together teachers and students in the way that BioBridge does, she said.

A spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation said that while the agency has underwritten science projects that bring teachers and students together for training—sometimes so that educators can practice working with students—efforts to cultivate student leaders are more rare.

The San Diego program’s approach also intrigued Dennis M. Bartels, the executive director of the Exploratorium, a San Francisco science center involved in numerous education ventures. BioBridge’s emphasis on breaking down barriers between teachers and students can be seen across science education, particularly in the growth of virtual programs, which allow students to take leadership roles in some activities, he said.

One possible benefit of BioBridge, Mr. Bartels said, is that teachers are receiving an impromptu tutorial—from students—on how to translate scientific language and concepts for teenagers.

“You want it to be informing the teacher on how to reach the student,” Mr. Bartels said. “You would hope that teachers get a much more finely tuned ear for what the student experiences.”

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 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Teachers Partner With Students in Science Lab


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