A group photo with the 2014 STaRS participants, high school science teachers who spent two weeks at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo courtesy: NIEHS
A group photo with the 2014 STaRS participants, high school science teachers who spent two weeks at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo courtesy: NIEHS

What did some N.C. science teachers do on their summer vacations? They spent time in a lab in RTP.

By Gabe Rivin

Sula Teachey had not been in a professional science lab since the mid-1980s, when she was an undergraduate student. But she, along with other high school science teachers, recently had the opportunity to work with some of the nation’s top scientists, in a program that aims to bring current environmental-health research into classrooms across the state.

Tonya Adams, a high school science teacher in Monroe, and one of the teachers in the STaRS program. Photo courtesy: NIEHS

Teachey was one of 11 teachers in the Science, Teachers, and Research Summer Institute, or STaRS, a program hosted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. For two weeks in July, the teachers traveled to the NIEHS’s campus at Research Triangle Park, where they learned from, and shared lab benches with, federal health researchers.

Teachey and the others performed gel electrophoresis, a technique used to separate and analyze DNA. They studied the connections between genes, cancer and the environment. And, among a number of other topics, they learned how federal researchers follow strict requirements for animal testing.

“It was great getting to work with real scientists, and to do the lab work,” said Teachey, who teaches science at Goldsboro’s Wayne School of Engineering. She said that the experience will allow her to show students what a career in health sciences would look like.

And that’s the point, according to Huei-Chen Lao, an education and outreach coordinator at the NIEHS, who helped develop the program. Lao said that students often don’t get to see the exciting sides of science, those that touch directly on their lives.

“We like the students to realize science is a very relevant part of our day-to-day lives,” she said.

The NIEHS’s goal is to introduce teachers to some of the biggest trends in health research, with the hope that the lab work and scientific theories will find their way into the classroom. In doing so, the NIEHS is helping to cultivate the next generation of health researchers. It’s a generation that, according to Lao, will have access to a large pool of jobs.

North Carolina is home to several major science-related industries, including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and university research. High-tech industries, in fact, account for about 10 percent of the state’s jobs, according to a 2013 report by the N.C. Department of Commerce. Biotech companies alone employ 55,000 people in the state, according to the industry’s trade association.

Those employment figures are something that students should be aware of, according to Linda Sutton, a science teacher at Polk County Early College High School and another participant in this year’s STaRS program.

“More and more, you think the students need to be trained in some sort of biotech field, because that’s where they’re going to find jobs,” she said. “There is such a wide range of career opportunities that they need to be made aware of.”

Connecting to students’ lives

Beyond employment, the STaRS program could impact students’ decisions about their health.

Sutton said that she studied the interactions between our genes and our environment.

A group photo with the 2014 STaRS participants, high school science teachers who spent two weeks at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo courtesy: NIEHS

“I got some neat information about that that I could pass onto students, about how some people are more prone to certain diseases,” she said. “So if you have a history of lung cancer in your family, that you might have that gene, you have to be even more cautious about smoking yourself.”

Teachey said that it’s important to connect scientific lessons to students’ lives. Her students, she said, have shown a large interest in the problems with drinking water, a concern that could tie into a class lesson.

“They have in their lives constantly heard about exposure to heavy metals or exposures to things that might be carcinogenic,” she said. She added that she hopes to “get them in some kind of project that would help them look for water quality and how they could make connections with that and the quality of their health.”

Building those connections between the lab and our lives was a major focus of the program. So too was the development of lesson plans, which will bring that information into the classroom.

Though teachers spent their first week learning from researchers and working in labs, in their second week they spent time collaborating on classroom material.

Sutton said that she often benefits from these sorts of experiences.

“That’s really valuable – for the teachers to get together and share that information,” she said.

The NIEHS was careful to make sure that its lessons could find a place in high school classrooms. Lao said that the program aligned with state science standards, and therefore related to the material that teachers need to cover in their classrooms.

Making it work

STaRS launched in 2012 with just one teacher. It didn’t run in 2013. So how did a federal agency develop a program with 10 times as many participants as when it started?

Huei-Chen Lao works for NIEHS and helped to develop the summer program. Photo courtesy: NIEHS

Ericka Reid, who directs the Office of Science Education and Diversity at the NIEHS, said that the institute had a crucial collaboration with North Carolina New Schools, which offers professional development and other services in schools across the state. The organization helped the NIEHS recruit teachers, which would have been difficult for the institute, Reid said.

“We as a federal agency cannot necessarily knock on the doors of schools and say, ‘We want to do this program with you,’” she said

The partnership also helped fund the program. North Carolina New Schools offered teachers a stipend for their time, which the NIEHS matched with its own funding.

In addition to the funding, teachers received a significant incentive to participate: free housing for two weeks.

“I live five hours away,” Sutton said. “Providing a place to stay – that allowed me to do it.”

But beyond funding and accessing teachers, the NIEHS could not have pulled off the program without its researchers, more than 20 of whom volunteered their time, Lao said.

Keeping the connection

With glowing feedback from 2014’s participants, the NIEHS plans to continue offering the program in the future.

In the meantime though, Lao and other NIEHS researchers are keeping their connections with this year’s crop of STaRS teachers. They will be visiting some of the teachers’ classrooms, including a visit on Oct. 10 to Rocky Mount’s Early College High School, where they’ll co-teach for the day.

Sutton and Teachey said they’re grateful that the NIEHS has continued to offer resources even after the program ended. And Teachey said the program helped her realize that she could tap federal resources for her high school classes.

“It led me to see how available resources are,” she said. “In the past, I hadn’t seen that as an option.”

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Gabe Rivin

Gabe is our former environmental health reporter from 2014-2016. He is a former editor of The Cooperative Business Journal, and a former reporter for Inside Washington Publishers, where he covered federal...