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HHMI: DID IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
PS: The teachers loved it. I grew up scientifically in the era of phage; I knew it intimately. I could convey the experiments themselves, but also the context and flavor of the times. The teachers loved that too. With passing summers we added new research topics (antibiotic resistance and regulated gene expression, for example). All of the experiments are derived from materials that the teachers (and later, their students) isolate themselves (livestock manure became the most popular and reliable source of bacteria and bacterial viruses), and from questions that the isolation generates in their own minds. Still, it wasn't translating to the classroom. I would get e-mails from the teachers when they went back to their schools about science fair projects, but not about using the experiments in the classroom. By the second and third year, the teachers faded away. I stopped hearing from them.
HHMI: WHAT WAS MISSING?
PS: Eight weeks wasn't enough. We give a grad student 5 years to do independent research and get a Ph.D., but we expect teachers to go through a transformation in 8 weeks? I began allowing teachers to return to the Summer Course for 4-week intervals as often as they wanted. This "Return to Science," as I called it, increased teachers' confidence and was certainly popular. It was kind of a circus, with new and returning teachers sharing lab space, but it was fantastic. Nevertheless, it didn't entirely solve the problem of classroom use.
HHMI: DID YOU EVER THINK, "THIS JUST ISN'T GOING TO WORK"?
PS: The idea entered my mind, but I immediately rejected it because I had 8 weeks with these teachers. I knew their abilities in the lab and how excited they were when they did these experiments. I just had to ask why this enthusiasm wasn't spilling over into the classroom, what other possibilities constituted barriers to classroom use.
HHMI: THE ANSWER?
PS: They needed classroom support. It was naïve to expect the teachers to find time to pour 400 petri plates. It's so obvious when I say it, but it's amazing how long it took for this to sink in. So we asked the teachers to send us a shopping list. You need 400 petri plates? We'll pour them for you. You need filters to isolate your own phage? We'll send them. We send these kits overnight so they have them when they need them, and they are the key. Now we're getting repeats. Teachers are asking for this stuff year after year.
HHMI: YOU PLAN TO TRAIN OTHER SCIENTISTS TO DO WHAT YOU DO. WHAT WILL YOU TELL THEM?
PS: I'll tell them you're not trying to turn these teachers into scientists but into better science teachers. Don't try to dazzle them with your intellect or with the cost of your toys. Effective scientist-mentors will understand this perspective. I will also tell them that to fully engage teachers it really helps to be a bit of a ham—mentoring is part performance art. Finally, I will tell them that teachers are great about telling you what they think. Listen to them. They might even make you a better teacher.
Interview by Cori Vanchieri
Philip Silverman wants to help high schoolers pose questions and find answers through experiment.