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Teachers strive to stay abreast of science

WASHINGTON — When Anne Tweed read about scientists in Oregon getting a monkey to glow in the dark, she thought her students ought to try it themselves.

So last January, the biology teacher at Eagle Crest High School in Aurora, Colo., sent away to Bio-Rad, a California biological supply company for $150 worth of the glow-in-the-dark gene that researchers at Oregon Health Science University had extracted from a jellyfish.

Her students carefully mixed up a broth of the gene and tried to get a few tins of E. coli bacteria to accept it.

Three days later, the E. coli cooperated.

"We genetically engineered the bacteria to have that glow-in-the-dark gene," she said.

These days, advances in science seem to arrive as often as the morning newspaper.

Whether it's a rough draft of the human genome or a smooth landing on the asteroid Eros, scientific breakthroughs are making life tough for science teachers. An enterprising few manage not only to stay abreast of the latest developments but to bring them alive in the classroom.

"That is one of the struggles I have — how to stay current," Tweed said. "The information is coming out so rapidly, so if you don't have some means of staying current . . . you're going to be outdated very quickly."

Ellen M. Tidmore, a science teacher at Marlton Elementary School in Upper Marlboro, Md., said many colleagues simply make a routine of attending scientific conferences and workshops. They also chat regularly with peers, both in person and on the Internet.

"It's just the same way as a doctor who has to keep up on the latest medical techniques," said Tidmore, one of about 200 teachers who were in Washington last week to receive Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.

"You definitely have to prepare," said Maureen McNamara, a second-year teacher who trained with Tidmore last year. McNamara said she's constantly thinking of ways to tie science into her students' lives — a particular challenge for fifth-graders.

They love learning about catastrophes, for instance, wanting to know about the recent earthquake in the Seattle area. But she said cloning wouldn't much interest them — unless scientists could clone pop star Britney Spears or country singer Faith Hill.

"Then they would know about it," McNamara said.

In general, Tidmore and others said, students these days come to school more sophisticated than ever and wanting to know how science affects them.

Arthur Eisenkraft, a physics teacher at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, N.Y., and president of the National Science Teachers Association, said teachers rely on a network of government and private research labs for help with the latest developments, even taking summer jobs to stay current.

"They give teachers a much better sense of how research is done," he said. "It puts them on the front line."

Virtually all research labs — public and private — now offer some sort of partnership with schools, said Maureen Munn, director of the High School Human Genome Program, a partnership of teachers and the University of Washington in Seattle.

Often, she said, what teachers need most is access to the labs' expensive equipment. The university has complied, routinely letting schools use its gel electrophoresis kit, a device used in molecular biology labs. As a result, students are now learning about DNA sequencing and the molecular basis of drug addiction, Munn said.

Eisenkraft and others said the standard textbook, once a staple in science class, can't be relied upon anymore, since it takes about five years to develop and publish one. "It is already outdated by the time it hits the classroom, even if it's brand new," Eisenkraft said.

Many textbooks now come with special markers that guide students to Web sites containing the most up-to-date scientific information, he said.

Don DeRosa, a former science teacher who directs the education program for CityLab, a biotechnology lab for middle- and high-school students at the Boston University School of Medicine, said the science teachers he meets are busy all the time.

"It's a monumental task when you consider that a biology teacher, during the year, is asked to teach ecology, genetics, zoology, a little bit of plant physiology, respiration, energy exchange,' DeRosa said.

"I know of very few people who can be an expert in all of those fields. The way the systems are now, we're asking a tremendous amount of our teachers to keep current."


On the Net:High School Human Genome Program: hshgp.genome.washington.edu/

National Science Teachers Association: www.nsta.org/

CityLab: www.bumc.bu.edu/Departments/HomeMain.asp?DepartmentID285

Bio-Rad: www.bio-rad.com

Award winners: www.ehr.nsf.gov/pres_awards/2000.asp