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Teaching Teachers To Teach Biology

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July 26, 2005
research lab

Biology teacher Jennifer Adams of Wells High School investigates the effects of changing energy and temperature on heart cells as part of a summer institute preparing teachers to use SESP's Disease Detectives curriculum.

EVANSTON, Ill. --- While their colleagues enjoy a well-deserved summer vacation, from July 25 to Aug.  5, a group of biology teachers from five Chicago public high schools will be designing and conducting experiments with live, twitching heart cells and analyzing heart imaging tests with real-world cardiologists.

These inquiry research labs, which will take place in the undergraduate biology teaching laboratories on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus and in the division of cardiology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, are designed to teach these teachers biology in the same inquiry-based approach that they will use to instruct their own students.

“The idea is to give teachers a learner's eye view of what it's like to learn through scientific inquiry,” says David Kanter, a research assistant professor at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy and in the biomedical engineering department. Kanter helped develop “Disease Detectives,” the inquiry-based biology curriculum and software that the teachers will use to teach their students in the coming school year.

While Kanter has run summer institutes for teachers in the past, for the first time this year his teacher/students will be engaged in several days of laboratory work and learning at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. There they'll work with cardiologist Thomas Holly, assistant professor of cardiology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and other heart specialists, viewing firsthand echocardiogram and nuclear stress tests and angiograms, and learning to interpret the results.

“The teachers will apply their newfound skills to review cardiology data from ‘patients’ that are part of the ‘Disease Detectives’ curriculum to inquire into the cellular basis of coronary artery disease,” Kanter explains.

Before visiting the hospital, the teachers will use the tissue culture facilities on Northwestern's Evanston campus to design and conduct experiments into cellular homeostasis and cellular respiration using living heart cells.

In doing actual experiments and research laboratory work with real cells, the teachers will answer: "What do heart muscle cells need to work properly?" That's the same research question their students will answer via inquiry using “virtual laboratory” software in the “Disease Detectives” curriculum.

“The idea,” says Kanter, “is to teach teachers and students biology by having them work in the same way that scientists do -- posing questions and collecting and analyzing experimental or medical data in order to use what they learn to solve a mystery that turns out to be coronary artery disease.” To ensure that the teachers themselves have a realistic handle on how to analyze the medical data in “Disease Detectives,” on Aug. 2 they'll view an echocardiogram stress test around 10:30 a.m. at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Then they'll work side by side with an echo cardiologist to learn how to read the case data.

Two days later, on Aug. 4, the teachers will shadow a technician in the nuclear cardiology facilities of the hospital, witness a nuclear cardiology stress test and work with Dr. Holly, the cardiologist who is making this "real world" experience possible. Dr. Holly also will discuss the importance of inquiry learning for students and his commitment to helping teachers learn to teach biology that way.

On Aug. 5, the teachers will put on scrubs, hairnets and lead aprons before viewing procedures in the angiography facility of the hospital. A cardiologist will discuss just how angiograms –- the x-ray images of coronary arteries that are the “gold standard” for determining the exact location and severity of coronary artery disease -- work.

All this will build upon the heart cell experiments that will the teachers already will have done on the beating heart cells in Northwestern's Evanston laboratories the week of July 25.

“Helping the teachers with these inquiry laboratories will allow them to analyze medical and experimental data in ways similar to the in-class activities they will do with their students later in the year,” says Kanter.

“The summer laboratory curriculum is more open-ended, but it uses the same inquiry approach to teach the teachers the very same biology concepts they will be teaching their students,” Kanter adds.  “The students will analyze the same kind of data using the curriculum software.” In the fall, the same group of biology teachers will take a graduate school class on "Learning and Teaching Human Biology" while they teach their own students “Disease Detectives.”

“Most teacher development isn't quite this intense,” Kanter says with a more than a hint of understatement. “But we're committed to providing a coherent and extended experience that we believe will support teachers in regular classrooms doing challenging inquiry-based teaching.”

The summer institute is part of Kanter's BioQ Collaborative (http://www.letus.org/bioq/) that studies how practice-based teacher development can improve K-12 science education in urban schools. Part of the Minority K-12 Initiative for Teachers and Students, Kanter’s work is funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

For more on “Disease Detectives,” visit the curriculum and software Web site at http://www.letus.org/bioq/dd/curriculum.html.