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Hook 'Em with Science
by Sarah C.P. Williams
Learning science need not be the painful experience that many kids expect. Four researchers are showing how science in the classroom can be a downright pleasure.
Dense textbooks, long lectures, and complicated facts to memorize: these are the things that make many kids dread science class. Even though most scientists consider their work to be a great personal joy both intellectual and otherwise, methods for teaching science to youngsters, as well as to nonscientist adults, have often struggled to convey that excitement.
Hoping to trigger fresh ideas for bringing science to students and the public, HHMI awarded special education grants in 2007 to four HHMI investigators who want to share the fun side of their research—Roger Y. Tsien, Ronald D. Vale, David Baker, and Sean B. Carroll.
“As experts in their respective fields, [these researchers] bring to the table unique perspectives and knowledge that has provided expanded educational opportunities for students at many levels,” says Peter Bruns, HHMI's vice president for grants and special programs. “So far the projects have been remarkably diverse.”
Tsien and his former postdoc Jeremy Babendure, at the University of California, San Diego, are exploiting the properties of fluorescent proteins—work for which Tsien won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The rainbow of colors, though, are not only indispensable to research but also fun to use. “You see all these bacterial plates with the whole range of colors, just wonderful colors,” says Babendure. “The scientists in the lab love it—they fool around with it and make designs. So we thought this is probably a really great tool to get to kids too.”
Working together with some teachers they came to know, Tsien and Babendure developed a curriculum—dubbed BioBridge—that uses the colorful array of proteins in high school classrooms.
Vale, of the University of California, San Francisco, also wants to illuminate the colorful side of science, though not quite as literally. His approach: online seminars that reveal scientific fact as well as the not-necessarily smooth process of discovery, the links between fields, and the more personal side of science.
One of the inspirations for his project was his travels in India, where he noted the dearth of seminars even at top institutions.
“Some schools are real magnets for attracting seminar speakers, and they have the money to afford them,” says Vale. “But the vast number of places in the world, and even in the U.S., don't have that luxury of access to top speakers in biology.”
Illustration: Maxwell Loren Holyoke-Hirsch