Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Collaboration at the Nanoscale: Exploring Viral Genetics with Electron Microscopy

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Collaboration at the Nanoscale: Exploring Viral Genetics with Electron Microscopy

Article excerpt


When university scientists and high school teachers share knowledge and resources, there are mutual benefits. For example, science teachers often excel in pedagogic practice, but must teach with limited access to laboratory resources and specialized expertise unless they can find willing partners at universities or other scientific institutions. Collaboration with high school teachers and students allows practicing scientists to do important outreach work--often required by their funding agencies--and provide their graduate students with the opportunity to increase communication and teaching skills. This article highlights one such partnership--a collaboration of high school teachers and students with scientists and graduate students at the University of Southern Maine (USM)--and illustrates how access to a university research community's advanced technological resources can enrich science learning in high school classrooms.

This partnership, the Maine ScienceCorps, is a project sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) program. Through this program, USM's virology and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) research group provides high school teachers and students in rural areas with access to the nanoscale world of viruses. Graduate student fellows work with teachers to enrich classroom content in microbiology and molecular biology. This type of collaboration is especially important because microbiology and virology concepts are fundamental to understanding molecular biology and biotechnology, yet laboratory experimentation and inquiry in secondary classrooms are often constrained by safety considerations (see "Keys to microbiological safety," p. 37) and available laboratory resources.

In the project described in this article, fellows bring safe laboratory strains of bacteria--such as Escherichia coli B (E. coli B) obtained from biological supply companies--into high school classrooms and assist students and teachers in microbiology studies. They demonstrate necessary safety precautions and facilitate classroom investigations through the use of university resources, ranging from basic tools to sophisticated instruments such as electron microscopes. It is unusual for electron microscopy to be available for secondary science education, but this is just one example of how community partnerships can provide broad educational benefits.

A micro- and nanoscale education imperative

The unseen world, both living and nonliving, at the micro- and nanoscale has immense importance for health, disease, and the entire biosphere--and yet is only visible in detail through microscopy. The biological world at these scales is richly complex in an ecological sense. It includes agents of infectious diseases and other biological entities that contribute to the biosphere in numerous ways by

* driving evolution throughout the tree of life,

* influencing nutrition and developmental biology of multicellular organisms,

* supporting food chains, and

* exerting controlling influences on Earth's biogeochemical cycles (Fuhrman 1999; Hendrix 2005; Suttle 2005; Wommack and Colwell 2000; Breitbart, Rohwer, and Abedon 2005; Schaechter, Ingraham, and Neidhardt 2006).

Despite the undeniable importance of microbes, even college bioscience majors rarely experience substantial microbiology education until late in their undergraduate training, if at all. This accounts for a significant deficiency in the general public's scientific literacy and in the preparation of biologists, biomedical scientists, and health professionals (Schaechter, Kolter, and Buckley 2004; BSCS 2006). Another unfortunate consequence is that K-12 educators often lack any formal microbiology training and are thus limited in their capacity to convey this foundational knowledge of the biological and biomedical sciences to students. …

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