Delaware teachers participate in biotechnology weekend workshop
Penney Hall of the Center for Math and Science Educational Resources leads teachers in a “cheese lab” that they can easily repeat in their classrooms. Photo by Kathy Atkinson
Longtime educator Harry Dillner summarizes recent advances in molecular biology related to evolution and provides an overview of the new science of “evo devo” (evolution and developmental biology). Photo by Kathy Atkinson
Harsh Bais shares his research on the invasive Phragmites australis with the teachers on Friday night at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. Photo by Duane Perry
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3:33 p.m., March 3, 2009----Fifteen Delaware public school teachers met at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute and the University of Delaware's Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes Feb. 20-22 for a “biotechnology weekend.”

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Sponsored by Delaware's National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) outreach program and the DuPont Office of Education, the three-day workshop was offered to middle and high school teachers (grades 6-12).

The workshop provided teachers with new instructional methods, such as hands-on laboratories and exposure to the latest cutting-edge research applications. Instructors, including seasoned teachers and scientists in the field, also addressed the historical roots of biotechnology and its current applications in human health and agriculture.

“Most Delaware public school teachers see about 150 students each week, so involving even a small group of teachers has the potential to impact a large audience of students,” said Jeanette Miller, assistant director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. “Life science is an important part of the state science curriculum and standardized testing program. Professional development retreats like this one help teachers stay current. We want teachers to feel connected to life science at the University of Delaware.”

Participating teachers received the materials that would help them incorporate biotechnology into their courses and present the subject clearly and effectively in their classrooms.

The weekend began on Friday night at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, where teachers toured the building and met research scientists who are solving real-world problems through biotechnology.

Harsh Bais, an EPSCoR-funded assistant professor in the University of Delaware's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, whose lab is based at DBI, spoke to the teachers about his research group's work on invasive plant species and the molecular biology of those species.

On Saturday in Lewes, teachers heard from workshop coordinator Bill Hall of the College of Marine and Earth Studies, who explained biotechnology as a concept and offered historical background on the subject.

“Biotech is a misunderstood term, because it incorporates so many of the sciences,” said Hall. “Our purpose in this workshop is to get teachers to understand the roots of biotech and how it affects our daily lives, from the grocery store to the hospital.”

Barbara Campbell, an assistant professor in the College of Marine and Earth Studies, provided workshop participants with information about microbes and genomics and their relationship to biotechnology.

Campbell also discussed the research at the Lewes campus that uses biosciences, often in pursuit of biotechnological advances. Campbell and one of her graduate students, Katrina Twing, demonstrated molecular techniques such as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, and cloning.

Campbell said she has taught the workshop three times and noted that there is usually a wide range of teacher backgrounds and interests.

She said she makes sure to encompass both the broad topic and to focus in on a few narrow items to make it interesting. “I like the interactions and hope the teachers will be able to excite their students in pursuing scientific careers,” said Campbell.

Harry Dillner, who taught biology at Christiana High School from 1967 to 1996 and worked as a science education specialist for the Delaware Department of Education from 1996 until 2003, presented the lesson “DNA: The Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution.”

“During this anniversary year of Charles Darwin's birth and the publication of his On the Origin of Species, it is fitting that the EPSCoR workshop include a session on how molecular genetics has confirmed and expanded our understanding of his theory of natural selection,” said Dillner. “It is my hope that teachers will take from the session information about DNA that will bolster their subject matter expertise, ultimately resulting in students who have fewer misconceptions and a better grasp of the rapid changes occurring in genetics and evolution. It is also important that teachers and students understand that new advances in molecular biology hold the key to solving practical problems that range from endangered species to understanding and treating diseases such as cancer and AIDS.”

Teachers agreed that the weekend left them with a better sense of how biotechnology can be used to understand and monitor environmental health and improve the economy through job growth.

Victoria Deschere, a science teacher at Louis L. Redding Middle School in Middletown, said, “There were 'aha' moments when the information was applicable in a way I had not seen before and might excite my students.”

Deschere said she would recommend the workshop to other teachers. “It did give me many ideas for improvements to lessons I taught or a few I would like to add.”

Article by Katie Ginder-Vogel

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