UR Hooks High School Students on Real-Life Science

September 09, 2003

          The University of Rochester Medical Center, supported by nearly $2 million in new private and government grants, will expand a program to help New York high school pupils understand how scientists really work, and how contemporary issues such as genomics are shaping the future.

            “Science education is no longer multiple choice or fill-in-the-blanks,” says Dina Markowitz, Ph.D., director of the Life Sciences Learning Center at the UR Medical Center. “Real science is tentative and very creative. Today’s students will have to learn the skills to conduct scientific investigations. We are helping teachers discover how to motivate students, raise their confidence level, and erase misconceptions about what it means to do science.”

            This summer  Markowitz secured $540,000 from the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the world’s largest philanthropies, and $1.2 million from the National Institutes of Health Human Genome Research Institute. The money funds two separate projects: to update the science curriculum for Regents biology statewide, and to update teacher skills and develop new classroom laboratory concepts for grades six through 12 in Rochester City Schools. These grants build on seed money provided by the NIH and the Toyota USA Foundation  to establish the Life Sciences Learning Center and the lab-skills project for the City Schools. 

            “Students tend to view what they do in school as banal, so this is a great opportunity to expose them to a wider world,” says Deirdre Bonnell, biology teacher at Wilson Magnet High School in Rochester. “Perhaps for the first time, they will see themselves in the role of a scientist. Any time you can change the way a 14-year-old approaches science, it makes a very big impression.”

          In fact, the Howard Hughes grant will allow city students such as those in Bonnell’s class to visit the UR Life Sciences Learning Center. They will put on lab coats and goggles, talk to scientists, conduct experiments – and learn, first-hand, that science doesn’t always work according to plan. The Life Sciences Learning Center staff will also conduct class sessions at the City schools, in partnership with science teachers, to help prepare the students for their visit to the University of Rochester.

            In addition, thanks to the NIH funding, the new genomics curriculum will introduce students to some of the ethical, legal and social implications of the Human Genome Project and evolving genetics technology.

            “Every citizen will have to become literate in genetics in order to make personal health decisions in the future, and to contribute to society,” Markowitz says. “Our challenge is to figure out the best way to teach these complex issues to young students, and to align them with current state standards.”

             On the genomics project, Markowitz is working with Chin-To Fong, M.D., clinical associate professor, Pediatrics/Genetics; Jane Greenlaw, Ph.D., associate professor and director of Medical Humanities; the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education, and the New York State Biology-Chemistry Mentor Network, a group of about 60 master teachers from throughout the state. Once the curriculum is in place, the master teachers will train other teachers in their local districts. The project is to be completed in three years.

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Leslie Orr
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