Science teacher gets up close with lab experiments
August 8, 2013
By Neil Pierson
Jyoti Bawa isn’t spending her summer vacation curled up on the couch or sunning herself on a beach – she’s actively pursuing ways to help her students understand science.
Bawa, who’s entering her sixth year as a science teacher at the Renaissance School of Art and Reasoning in Sammamish, spent a large chunk of July at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. She was one of 27 teachers from across the Puget Sound region who participated in the center’s 23rd annual Science Education Partnership, which gives teachers a chance to work side-by-side with research scientists in a laboratory setting.
After embarking upon her National Board Certification last year, Bawa began reflecting upon her many responsibilities as a public educator, and felt she had one glaring weakness.
“I’ve been doing great with my kids and preparing lessons and all,” she said, “but I have not grown professionally.”
She sought help from fellow science teachers at Eastlake High School, where most of Bawa’s middle-school students end up. They highly recommended the Science Education Partnership to help Bawa improve her curriculum.
Bawa said many of her sixth-grade students last year were intrigued by her diversity of life unit, in which they learned about cell structures, nucleic acids and replication. Bawa wanted to pick up some hands-on applications for her classroom, something she felt was missing from her own middle-school and high-school education.
Fred Hutchinson has brought in more than 400 teachers during the 23-year history of SEP, lessons that have theoretically filtered down to more than 300,000 students. The cancer research center is also hoping students develop their scientific aptitudes and become more likely to pursue career fields like biochemistry, genetics or molecular biology.
The partnership got started because teachers often struggle to connect with expert scientists, director Nancy Hutchison said.
“Those relationships don’t come out of what you do in college,” Hutchison said. “Teachers wanted to be in research labs for a bit. They didn’t want to become graduate students, but they wanted a chance to get immersed in that real experience of being in a research lab.”
Bawa spent several days working alongside a scientist at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. She got a glimpse into how drugs like morphine and codeine suppress pain, and ways to minimize side effects such as addiction and sleep apnea.
She and the scientist worked together to create mutant DNA cells, replacing a key binding receptor, histidine, with other amino acids. The research could lead to medications that are much more effective for patients.
Bawa plans to use her improved knowledge of DNA to create some new lesson plans. In one of them, students will extract the DNA from berries and bananas. Another will examine the DNA similarities and disparities in sugary treats like licorice and marshmallows.
“If they learn that going into high school, they’ll be ready to learn genetics at a deeper level,” Bawa said.
The SEP had five teacher leaders, and Bawa partnered with Cindy McIntyre, an 18-year science teacher at Everett High School who has been coming to Fred Hutchinson since 1998.
McIntyre believes SEP has positively impacted student learning by improving test scores and raising the number of students who pursue scientific careers. She has two former students who are working at Fred Hutchinson as technicians while earning their degrees.
McIntyre teaches all levels of high-school biology, and she’s able to network with other teachers at SEP who can improve her knowledge base.
“By learning the new tools of the trade, I stay current,” she said. “It’s the best professional development I’ve ever had.”
Bawa said she had formed connections with people she met at Seattle Children’s Research Institute who said they were willing to make guest appearances in her classroom. That could help add another quality program at the Renaissance School, which is already known for its theater and arts programs.
“There’s also a population of kids who are great critical thinkers, and they need this extension,” she said. “Kids will be able to come not only for the arts that we offer, but also because of the solid science program they’ll get.”