Transforming MIT Tools for High School Science Education

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June 2011

Education Group Research Scientists Dr. Lourdes Alemán and Dr. Stacie Bumgarner have been exploring ways to expand the utility of MIT-developed StarGenetics and StarBiochem educational software into high school science education settings. These efforts were encouraged by positive responses from high school students who have participated in StarBiochem and StarGenetics inquiry-based activities in educational outreach programs hosted at MIT, the Whitehead Institute, the Broad Institute, the MIT Museum, and elsewhere. STAR software and curriculum modules were originally built for use in undergraduate-level science education at MIT and other universities so, for these tools to be meaningfully useful in high school settings, a new set of level-appropriate curricular activities need to be developed. Alemán and Bumgarner have been learning about high school science content and the technology commonly available in high school classrooms through surveys, focus groups and workshops for high school teachers, and a fruitful ongoing collaboration with high school Biology teacher Shannon Donnelly of North Shore Technical High School (Middleton, MA) and David Stanley of the Boston-based non-profit education agency JFYNetWorks. Donnelly, Stanley, Alemán, Bumgarner, and the MIT STAR software team have been developing inquiry-based activities that enable high school students to use StarBiochem to explore molecular structures that are commonly found in high school biology curriculum. Their efforts were honored on May 26, 2011 by JFYNetWorks in its annual awards ceremony at the Massachusetts State House in Boston.

The MIT and North Shore Technical High School collaborators receive the JFYNet Award for Innovative University/High School Partnership at the Massachusetts State House on May 26, 2011. Left to right: Gary Kaplan (JFYNet Executive Director), Graham Walker (MIT Professor of Biology), Lourdes Alemán (MIT Education Group Research Scientist), Stacie Bumgarner (MIT Education Group Research Scientist), Shannon Donnelly (North Shore Technical High School Biology Teacher), Dan O’Connell (NSRVSD Superintendent/Director), and David Stanley (JFYNet Instructional Technology Integration Specialist).

“This partnership between MIT and North Shore Technical High School will be the model for STEM education in the Commonwealth,” said JFYNet Executive Director Gary Kaplan. “It shows that the resources of our higher education institutions can be brought into the K-12 classroom to provide an updated version of the National Defense Education Act for the 21st Century.”

But even more rewarding for this dedicated team was the ripple of “Cool!”s that were heard from Donnelly’s 10th grade Biology students as they engaged in the new StarBiochem activity, piloted at North Shore Technical High School on June 10, 2011. The students responded very positively to the activity, asked lots of great questions, and were self-motivated to continue exploring additional molecular structures after the pilot lesson was complete!

Since 2004, laboratory-trained researchers from the Education Group have been working with MIT Professors Graham Walker and Chris Kaiser and MIT’s Software Tools for Academics and Researchers (STAR) developers, lead by Chuck Shubert of OEIT, to build resources aimed at narrowing the divide between the research laboratory and the science classroom. This collaboration has led to the development of freely available software tools, including StarGenetics and StarBiochem, which enable students to perform inquiry-based virtual experiments and to engage in curiosity-propelled exploration of data obtained from current research. From this project’s beginning, an end goal of these efforts was to share the developed educational resources freely online and broadly across educational levels. To that end, Alemán, Bumgarner, and colleagues are working with experienced high school educators to learn more about how MIT can help support secondary STEM education through the development of these software tools.

In a recent pilot survey of 26 Boston-area secondary education science teachers, 23 from public schools and 3 from private schools, Alemán and Bumgarner asked various questions about the specific content covered in high school Biology classes and laboratory activities, about access to computers and the internet in classrooms, and about teachers’ willingness to adopt new technologies, such as the MIT-created StarBiochem and StarGenetics activities. The results from this survey showed that, for these respondents, the greatest impediment to implementing new teaching tools or technologies is finding classroom time to incorporate new material into the already jam-packed standards-based curriculum. Adding something new—even a valuable new resource—means leaving something else out. Another critical issue for high school teachers is finding sufficient training time to learn to use new methodologies, suggesting that professional development workshops offered during summer months would be a useful resource. An important bit of information for developers of educational resources to note: this survey showed that ready-made, high quality, level-appropriate, freely available exercises are highly valued by busy teachers. Respondents overwhelmingly agreed that they would be more willing to adopt StarGenetics and StarBiochem software in their classrooms if high quality inquiry-based activities that are simple to implement are made available on the internet.

Boston-area high school students use StarBiochem to explore the molecular interactions of DNA with examples of proteins that bind to it during the annual Spring Lecture Series for High School Students at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, MA on April 20, 2011. Center: Education Group Research Scientist Dr. Lourdes Alemán demonstrates a concept with students.

In an era when many universities are building open online educational resources, such as MIT’s OCW, it is important to keep in mind that access to technology still varies in our high school settings. Most teachers who responded to the pilot survey reported having access to a single computer with fairly reliable internet connectivity in their classrooms, but access to a computer lab or to portable computers that students could use in an in-class activity varies significantly across schools. On the other hand, respondents reported that most of their students have access to a computer outside of class. This is very important information to consider when designing curriculum modules for use in high school education.

About half of the responding teachers reported having insufficient time and too little space to conduct effective laboratory experiments with their students. These are precisely the types of problems that virtual experiment simulators, such as StarGenetics, are designed to answer. But the survey also revealed that expansion of the currently available StarGenetics functionality was important to support high school-level curriculum. At the time that the pilot survey was conducted, respondents indicated that, of the various organisms that can be manupulated in StarGenetics virtual experiments, fruit flies were the most relevant to high school Biology classes. But importantly, 95% of respondents reported that Gregor Mendel’s experiments with garden pea plants are a significant part of their high school-level Genetics content. To address this need, the MIT team has now created a version of StarGenetics that will enable high school students to perform their own virtual pea plant crosses. StarGenetics Peas is currently working in the beta version of the software and will soon be published on the STAR website.

The MIT team is committed to expanding the functionality of existing STAR software tools so that they will better fit high school education needs. Are you a High School Biology Teacher? Please help us to improve MIT’s STAR educational software resources for use in your classroom by taking this online survey!

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