When Karina Meiri and her husband Jim Schwob bought their house on Ridge Road in Martinsville a few years ago, it changed the way they thought about Maine—up until then they had primarily been vacationers. But Meiri says she thinks of herself these days as an “evolving resident.” This has to do with spending more time here as she enters a semi-retired phase of her professional life as a professor of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology at Tufts Medical School, but it also has to do with the fact that, as the Co-Director of Tufts’ Center for Translational Science Education, educating Maine’s high school science students has recently become a significant focus.
What Meiri and her colleagues at the Center have to offer Maine’s high school science students—and not incidentally their teachers—are curricula that bring together modern biomedical science, valuable health education and exposure to the wide range of career paths in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) fields.
“The public health aspect of the curriculum is for everybody,” Meiri says. “We did a focus group in which we asked high school students, ‘How many of you are interested in science?’ and 50 percent of them said they were somewhat interested in science. But then when we asked, ‘How many of you are interested in learning about your own health and the diseases that affect your own health?’ 98 percent of them said, ‘Yeah, we’d be really interested in learning about that.’ So that’s something students want to learn. Every kid needs to know how to manage their health so that when they go to the doctor and the doctor says, ‘Oh you’ve got an ear infection, so you need to take these antibiotics.’ They need to understand why the doctor then says to them, ‘And don’t forget to finish the course.’ That’s something simple, but it is key to a lot of underlying problems with antibiotics, so understanding that sort of thing, we believe, will give more impetus to public health compliance.”
At first, when Meiri joined the Tufts Medical School faculty in 2000, her interest was in working with high school students who were already taking an interest in doing “real” science. “Before coming to Tufts I always had high school students in my lab, working, learning science, helping, as a way to encourage them if they were interested in science. That morphed into a program that I started where I would pair high school students with other scientists so they could do projects. The point of that was so that they could enter these science competitions like the Intel competition because there is a lot of prize money in these competitions that would help students with college costs. Then, when Jim and I moved to Boston I started a really big program involving 100 students a year—we would match them with scientists from Tufts, or Harvard or MIT or industry.”
Eventually, Meiri and her colleagues realized that while it was great working with high school students who were already interested in science, there was a large group of students who didn’t really know if they would be interested in science or not.
“We realized that if we wanted to get to those students we’d have to get into the classroom and to get into the classroom we’d have to get the teachers on board, so that was how we decided to change from offering a sort of informal kind of opportunity for students to learn science to one that was really formally focused on the classroom.”
To their credit, Meiri says, high school science faculty realize that to teach science they have to engage students in science. “They have to involve them in a discovery experience so that they realize that science is about discovering things, not just learning things.” Applying that understanding to environmental projects—take St. George School’s alewife project as an example—can be very successful, Meiri says, because the projects are community oriented. “But our interest was in biomedical science, the science of health and disease, so that is something a bit more removed from the community, although our focus group made clear that health and disease is very much something students find engaging. But the teachers find it harder to translate that interest into effective projects because their own training isn’t in that kind of science. And then, when you become a teacher, you often don’t get content-based professional development. If their school has four days a year for professional development you’re going to get a professional development day that speaks to everybody and is not narrowly focused on topics like infectious diseases.”
So Meiri and her colleagues applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to work on developing a biomedical science curriculum for high school students called “The Great Diseases.” They began working on the five-year project with a group of local high school teachers in 2008. The curriculum was designed to be the “Biology II” course being offered to Boston area students with three years of science already under their belts—an elective that had been posing a significant challenge to their teachers, who were not feeling confident that their training was adequate to the teaching at this level.
“So we designed four six-week modules: infectious diseases, metabolic diseases like obesity, neurological disorders of which addiction would be a part and cancer of which modern technology would be a part. So those were the modules. And instead of saying, with infectious diseases for example, ‘Here’s a list of bacteria and here’s a list of parasites, now go away and learn them,’ which is what happens in medical school, the way we decided to do it was to ask 30 clear questions like, ‘What does it mean to say a disease is infectious? When does a microbe become pathogenic? How do we find out? How does our body control infectious disease? How do we treat it?’ So those were the big questions and then we would use specific diseases to explain the answers. So we might talk about Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) from the point of view of the science, asking ‘How does a STD work?’ So there is a real public health impact associated with it.”
Each module took the teachers and Meiri’s team a year to put together. “Over each year we would teach the teachers the content and then we would come up with the 30 questions. Then we would go away and take each of those questions and make them into a week’s worth of lessons. Then we would design those lessons so that each has a structure that a teacher can come to and just look at and say, ‘Okay, now I know what to teach in this lesson and how to teach it.’”
“The Great Diseases” curriculum has proven extremely popular. Meiri cites one teacher’s experience: “First she had to strong-arm kids to take the class, so the first year she had just 20 students. Now she is teaching four sections of the course and there is a waiting list.”
Meiri’s Center for Translational Science Education has also made the curriculum available online—there are about 15,000 downloads from the Center’s site each month, by users all over the world, but primarily in the U.S. Supporting all these users has become a significant part of the Center’s work.
“We designed workshops for teachers so they could come to us in Boston, usually during the summer, and learn how to teach each of the modules. Then we designed on-line virtual support so if a teacher in Texas wants to learn how a microbe becomes pathogenic they can sign up to have online chats and texts and skypes with someone who is an expert in our group and that expert can answer their questions and give tips about how to teach the classes. We also encourage the teachers to modify the lessons so if they say, ‘Well, my class doesn’t do well with reading,’ or ‘My class actually needs more reading than activities because we don’t really have the resources to support the activities,’ we’ll say, ‘Why don’t you do the lesson this way rather than in that way,’ so it is really structured support for the teachers. And the students get extra support because we supply workbooks that go along with the lessons.”
With another five-year grant from the NIH in 2014 the team began developing online professional development for teachers who can’t come to Boston for “The Great Diseases” workshops, especially those from schools in rural areas.
Another aspect of the Center’s work has involved developing another high school curriculum that goes into the classroom and gives students the opportunity to experience the “drug discovery” process as a means of exposing the students to science-related career options.
“With this curriculum we go into the classroom and say, ‘Here are three diseases, which one do we want to cure?’” Meiri explains. “The students go away and research the diseases and then they decide which to take on. And then we divide them into teams and each person in each of the teams plays a specific role, like a medicinal chemist or someone who organizes clinical trials or somebody who looks after the animals in the facility or someone who writes reports for the FDA. And then, over the course of a week, the students simulate this drug discovery process, they look at the data, figure out how to make their experimental drug better, and so on. The students get to experience all those different careers and learn about them and the education they would need to pursue them—not every STEM career requires a PhD or even a college degree. And the kids get to appreciate there is more to science than being a biology teacher.”
Bringing these curricula to Maine has become a significant focus for Meiri and Tufts’ Center for Translational Science Education for several reasons, Meiri notes, though it is entirely coincidental that this is happening at the same time that Meiri and her husband have become part-time residents of St. George. For one thing, Maine is a good fit because Tufts already has a relationship with Portland’s Maine Medical Center and with the Jackson Labs in Bar Harbor, both of which are doing science outreach with high schools. In fact, Maine Medical Center has already introduced Meiri’s team to a resource that will help connect it to Maine’s rural schools and has also hosted a workshop focused on one aspect of “The Great Diseases” curriculum for a group of Maine high school teachers. In addition, support from the Bingham Foundation, which has a special interest in bringing health science education to high schools in Maine, is making it possible for the Center to expand science curriculum development in the state.
Meiri is clearly pleased that her Center’s health science education work is developing a strong foothold in Maine. But, she admits, she also has a concern, noting, “We don’t yet have any educational partners in the midcoast area.” Now that she is becoming more and more grounded in St. George it seems likely that that situation will soon change. —JW
PHOTOS: Top, Julie Wortman; Center for Translational Science Education