May 25, 2010

Grant ensures summer workshops for science teachers

Each summer dozens of teachers descend on Ithaca, settling into Cornell's dorms for up to two weeks to attend the Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers (CIBT). They spend their days listening to lectures by leading researchers, sharpening their laboratory skills and exploring the natural gorges, fossil sites and bogs in the area.

Nearly 1,000 teachers have participated in these popular summer workshops, which Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has supported since the program's creation in 1989.

In a tough financial time, HHMI has announced that it will continue supporting these workshops with a new grant of $800,000. Cornell is one of 50 research universities to receive a 2010 HHMI Research Universities award for undergraduate science education.

A new aspect of the program will be new partnerships between CIBT classrooms and Cornell undergraduates. The undergraduate students will serve as mentors for K-12 students, as well as make school visits and teach CIBT activities.

Originally designed for high school teachers, the workshops have since expanded to welcome middle and elementary school teachers, as well. At the workshops, high school teachers learn about advances in basic biology and applications of molecular biology. Elementary and middle school teachers focus on using inquiry-based science to help students develop better reading, writing and math skills and meet state science standards. And CIBT supports teachers long after the summer workshops have concluded.

"The strength of this program is that it's not just a one-time event. Once teachers participate, they become CIBT alumni and our support and interaction continue," says Jeff Doyle, professor of plant biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell. "We have alumni return to campus events, and we have off-campus outreach events."

At the end of the workshops, teachers can check out equipment such as DNA and protein gel electrophoresis rigs, PCR machines and microscopes from a CIBT lending library. That library is linked to an extensive catalog of laboratory exercises that is supported by Cornell staff available for phone and e-mail consultation, Doyle says. Many alumni teachers also participate in a listserv to share their ideas.

"One of the most gratifying aspects of the program is the inspiration the teachers get from being on a research campus with their peers," says Doyle. "Those in rural counties can be isolated from other biology teachers. This gives them important support."

Many of those teachers concur: "I feel lucky every day that I have this connection to Cornell through CIBT," says Jessica Messere, a teacher in Greene, N.Y. "I think back to that first time I reached out and made my first contact. It was a bit scary, I mean a public teacher like me trying to ask for help from Cornell professors. But I know that it was the best move I ever made.

"As a teacher I have been able to teach more concepts using their labs and workshop information; gain confidence in understanding material so when I teach it I feel more knowledgeable ... and expose my students to equipment that my school would never be able to afford."

"I feel so thankful and lucky to be a part of the CIBT family, and it truly does feel like a family," says Beth Chagrasulis '80, a teacher in the rural Lake Region School District of Maine. "After attending CIBT, I'm energized and enthusiastic, and if I need a certain piece of expensive equipment that the school budget can't handle, CIBT will loan it to me. CIBT: What's not to love?"