Loudoun County, Virginia, biology teacher Sarah Horning, at right, examines DNA extracted from fruit by Stone Bridge High School students Catherine Inman, Ashley Morgan and Ryan Clairmont.
Sarah Horning is slapping pictures up on the white board at the front of her Stone Bridge High School biology classroom in Loudoun County, Virginia: lightning, lichen, a zebra, a car, fire, fungus, bacteria, a snake, diatoms (single-celled algae), a tree.
"Scientifically divide these into only two categories," she tells her 9th and 10th graders." Living and not alive, they suggest. Manmade and natural. Microscopic and macroscopic. "You're right," Horning exclaims. "All of you. Biology is the study of life, and there isn't necessarily one right answer."
We forget what it's like to be behind the little desks, trying to figure out what's important and why.
So begins a live wire, fast-paced science lesson that holds the attention of easily distracted young teenagers like a magnet grips iron.
"What's lichen? Fungus and algae in a symbiotic relationship," Horning asks, answering her own question. "And what is a symbiotic relationship?" Several students guess, and one comes close. "That's right, they can't live without each other," Horning nods. "And what are the characteristics of living things?" Horning is scribbling their answers on the board: "growth, reproduction, eating (let's call it intake, she suggests), excretion, responds to the environment, needs water, has at least one cell."
Before her students pair off to try extracting DNA from fruit, they sharpen their wits on some word puzzles Horning calls "brain teasers."
"MRDUKS," Horning writes.
It doesn't take the class long to puzzle it out. "Them are ducks," one shouts, giggling at the grammatical error. "Them are not. Oh yes they are. See them wings. Well I'll be. Them are too ducks." It may not be biology, but it makes biology class fun while it teaches the students to look beyond the obvious and let their imagination soar.
Horning spent four weeks this summer in the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's leadership program for teachers. Based in New Jersey, the teacher professional development program has been supported by Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) since 1993. One of the world's largest philanthropies, HHMI is a medical research organization dedicated to fostering biomedical research and science education.
During her summer fellowship, Horning and other biology teachers from across the country conducted intensive field and lab work just like research scientists. They also worked together to develop hands-on, creative teaching strategies for making the frontiers of science interesting and understandable back in their classrooms—making chromosomes out of pipe cleaners wrapped in multi-colored yarn, for example.
Horning and her fellow teachers collected specimens at Island Beach State Park in Seaside, New Jersey, extracted DNA from a variety of animal species and constructed a phylogenetic tree, which graphically illustrates the evolutionary relationship of a diverse group of organisms by comparing similarities in gene sequences.
Then they tackled the task of making the science accessible to high school students. They designed and adapted labs such as extracting DNA from strawberries, bananas and kiwi fruit, a hands-on favorite of her Loudoun County students.
"It was a fantastic learning experience," says Horning, 25, now in her fourth year of teaching. Although she was a biology major at Longwood College, now Longwood University, before her Woodrow Wilson fellowship summer, Horning had never actually done PCRs (polymerase chain reaction, a technique that amplifies the number of copies of a segment of DNA to produce a sufficient amount for testing) or sequenced the base pairs that make up DNA, the building blocks of life. “They covered a little of it in class, but I didn't really understand," she says. "This summer I had a chance to get in there and really understand the way things work."
The Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program for teachers includes lesson planning as well as hands-on science. A team of teachers developed a lesson, and then one taught it to an actual class while the others observed and commented. "They weren't observing the teacher; they were observing how the kids respond to the lesson," Horning explains. "It put me back in the students' shoes, and that was really valuable. We teachers are up here at the big desk, running our mouths, and we forget what it's like to be behind the little desks, trying to figure out what's important and why."
Horning came home determined to help her colleagues in Loudoun County become resources for each other, as the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship teachers had. "We don't get into each other's classrooms enough," she says. "We don't share ideas." Horning wants her fellowship experience to become a growth opportunity for Loudoun County teachers. She's hoping to give a workshop at a staff development day, to share some of what she's learned.
The daughter of Bonnie Horning, a life science teacher at Seneca Ridge Middle School in Loudoun County, Sarah never intended to go into teaching. "I really like science and wanted to do research, but I didn't want to go straight to graduate school," she explains. "So I decided to get my teaching certificate and do that for a year or two. But when I did my student teaching, I fell in love with it."
Horning is excited about Janelia Farm, the biomedical research campus that HHMI is building in Loudoun County, not far from Stone Bridge High School. "I would love to get a partnership going with HHMI, so the kids can have hands-on experience with the technology of the future, like microarrays," she says. "I'd like them to be able to visit real labs, meet working scientists, and have scientists visit the school and talk with them."