Judy Brown's excitement about science is contagious, and she's hoping to infect teachers all over the country.
As a teenager, Judy Brown thought that science was only for "really smart" kids. She didn't count herself among them. Brown entered college planning to major in English. Then she took a freshman botany course from a professor so inspiring that Brown became not only a biology major, but a teacher who has dedicated her own career to hooking kids on science.
She recently collaborated with HHMI on a "Teacher and Student Guide" to the 2000 Holiday Lectures and on a classroom companion to Exploring the Biomedical Revolution, a compilation of HHMI special reports. Both publications cover cutting-edge research too new to be in biology textbooks, providing classroom activities and discussion points designed to make the science not only accessible, but also exciting for high school students and teachers.
Activities include a biological clock scavenger hunt designed to bring alive the research of this year's Holiday Lecturers Joseph Takahashi and Michael Rosbash, HHMI investigators who study circadian rhythms, the internal clock mechanisms that regulate sleep and other bodily functions.
Some students will hear the lectures in person or live via satellite broadcast on Dec. 4 and 5, but they also are videotaped and distributed widely to teachers who use the tapes and guides throughout the school year. Last year, 11,000 teachers requested copies of the free Holiday Lectures guide.
Because advanced placement (AP) biology students are an important audience for the Holiday Lectures, Brown correlated information in the teacher guide with the AP biology curriculum, creating "challenge questions" and evaluation methods that teachers can use before and after the lectures.
Both books also catalog resource materials and Web links. The more kinds of information, hands-on activities and resources a teaching guide provides, the more useful a tool it becomes, Brown explains.
"My work with the classroom guides is just another way to share my own excitement with peers," she says. "Teachers who use those guides will find their own ways to make activities better. This is an essential strength of our teaching community. Since the 1800s, teachers have been creating new and exciting ways to teach kids, and we have always found ways to share stuff with each other," she adds. "We all stand on each other's shoulders."
However, says Brown, no guide in the world can help teachers who don't love what they do. "When teachers love what they are teaching, whether it be river restoration or DNA or insects, their own excitement makes them compelling," she points out. "It's hard to resist teachers who love what they're doing."
Brown's own favorite teaching technique is inquiry-based learning, which turns traditional teaching upside down. "When I was in school, you listened to a lecture, read the book, studied the lab instructions, and then finally you got to do the fun stuff—the dessert," she says. "By then, you weren't sure what you were doing or why. Inquiry-based learning starts with dessert. If you give kids something interesting to grapple with and capture their interest, you can teach them anything."
For example, sometimes Brown hands each student a test tube of bioluminescent bacteria. "In ambient light, it just looks pale yellow," she says. "I ask the kids to make observations about the stuff. Then I turn off the lights, and there's this gorgeous blue glow. Everyone who does this lab, whether they are middle school students or science teachers, says, 'Ohhhh'—and once I hear that, I know I've got them."