In a high school biology class, students are circulating the room, test tubes of clear liquid in hand. At a nod from their teacher, they exchange the contents of their test tubes with as many other students as they wish. Three minutes later, when the teacher stops them, she reveals that while all the test tubes looked identical, one originally contained an "infectious agent." Distributing a chemical that signals the presence of the agent by turning dark, she invites the students to test the liquids now in their test tubes. With a unanimous shudder of dismay, they watch more than half of their test tubes test "positive."
The "infectious agent" is "fake"diluted horseradishbut the underlying scientific principles are incontrovertibly real, as is the ensuing discussion on HIV and other infectious diseases.
This exercise grew out of a summer fellowship the teacher received from the American Association of Immunologists (AAI). Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the AAI awards stipends of $5000 to six science teachers annually and places them in state-of-the-art research labs alongside practicing immunologists. Inspired by similar efforts among biochemists and molecular biologists, David Scott of the AAI helped coordinate an immunology program, "not to get more people into immunology but to turn more kids onto science."
Participating teachers report that prior to their fellowships, they didn’t cover immunology at all because they didn’t feel they had enough knowledge to teach it. Since their lab experiences, however, they have taught a range of related topics, including the lymphatic system, organ transplantation, blood typing, the structure of the AIDS virus, genetic engineering, biotechnology, and the mathematics of disease progressions. "Science took on a whole new life," for one teacher’s students, "you could see it in their eyes. They really liked the relevance."
In addition to their lab experience, teaching fellows develop hands-on lab or classroom exercises that can be used by other teachers, leveraging their learning to reach a larger audience. Microbiologist and EDC curriculum developer Jackie Miller, who has worked with the AAI teaching fellows since the program’s inception, helps teachers ensure that the curriculum materials are scientifically accurate, that adequate background is provided for teachers who haven’t had lab experience, and that the material is relevant to students’ lives. "We want to generate kids’ interest, not just give them a cookbook lab experience," she says.
For example, an Ohio teacher invented a murder mystery whose solution depended on DNA testing. The students subjected mouse DNA to PCR (polymerase chain reaction) assays, which amplify the copies of a DNA sample so there is enough to be tested. Then, using gel electrophoresis, they separated the DNA strands by size, and compared their samples. (They found the guilty mouse.)
Most teachers are enthusiastic about the project, says EDC’s Kristin Metz, who is conducting an evaluation of the project. The experience of being in a lab, working with high tech equipment and hearing how scientists talk to each other and pursue their research, seems to reinforce the value of practices such as keeping lab notebooks and recording data carefully. “It really opens teachers’ eyes to a whole world of research they weren’t aware existed," she says. "Year after year they talk about how this opportunity gives them insight into how scientific research is done, an appreciation for the skills and perseverance required, and a determination to develop some of those skills in their students and pass on the excitement of being in the research community.”
For the scientists, says AAI member John Schreiber, like David Scott a former mentor and strong advocate of the fellowship program, the relationship is "humbling." Teachers work under constraintsbudgetary, political, and healththat would cripple most scientists. "Scientists have incredible freedom," Schreiber says, "A teacher might have a $300 lab budget for the yearwe spend $300 in a day."
Through her association with Dr. Elizabeth Didier, a research scientist with Tulane University, AAI fellow and 7th grade teacher Margie Keyes finally got to handle the kind of scientific equipment she had "seen pictures of but had never been able to touch." Didier also opened her lab to Keyes’s students, outfitting them in lab coats and letting them perform simulated procedures such as DNA electrophoresis, and examining specimens through high-powered stereo microscopes.
But even without the gee whiz factor, "Immunology is a natural turn-on to students," says Keyes. She and Didier designed an elaborate game of tag to illustrate how vaccines work: they have students play the roles of antibodies and vaccine antigens, and send the antibodies out after the antigens. When the antigens have been captured, a student in a white lab coat, playing a macrophage, pretends to devour the antigens. "Once we do the immunology unit and they learn the actual mechanisms, they really tie their learning to their experience," Keyes says, "They all hate being sick and like knowing what makes them better."
To date, AAI teaching fellows from both rural and urban areas in seven statesLouisiana, Tennessee, Missouri, Maryland, Ohio, New York, and Californiahave participated in the program. "Obviously this is a drop in the bucket," says Schreiber, who would like to reach far more teachers and develop immunology resources for all science programs. "I wish this was a multimillion dollar effort," he says, "But we’re making progress." Finding mentors used to be a problem, he notes. This year they had to turn people away.
Originally published on December 1, 2000