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Teacher-scientist partnerships in stem cell biology

Summer NYSTEM RET participant Ryan Asmus works with Ph.D. student Alex Loiben on a STEM research project in the Cosgrove Lab

In the summer of 2017, 10 New York state middle and high school biology teachers spent eight weeks at Cornell participating full time in a new program that pairs teachers with faculty and graduate students for research, learning and curriculum development experiences. Funded by a four-year grant from the New York State Department of Health, the NYSTEM Stem Cell Research Experience for Pre-College Teachers (NYSTEM RET) was awarded to Meinig School associate professors Jonathan Butcher and Chris Schaffer.

"The aim [of the program]," said Butcher, "is to shift the teaching of science from a collection of static book facts to a focus on science as a creative, dynamic process for discovery experienced in professional spheres." As detailed in the grant, the NYSTEM RET program defines three mechanisms for facilitating this shift: by giving teachers authentic research experiences, by putting graduate fellows in classrooms as "resident scientists," and by supporting teachers in creating new curricular materials that engage students in scientific discovery.

Coordinated by the Meinig School of Biomedical Engineering in conjunction with Cornell’s Stem Cell Program, the program hosts teachers from upstate New York school districts. This year, teachers from Ithaca, Lansing, Newfield, Cortland, Elmira, Horseheads, Afton and Syracuse took a graduate course on stem cell biology and scientific research, worked with a partnered graduate fellow to create new curricular materials for their classrooms and participated in research on stem cell biology.

Research projects were rooted in a number of different departments on campus, but all had a focus on stem cell research, with participating Cornell faculty and graduate students hailing from Biomedical Engineering, Biological and Environmental Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Molecular Biology and Genetics, Biomedical Sciences, Microbiology and Immunology, Nutritional Sciences, and the Baker Institute for Animal Health.

"I couldn't have asked for a more challenging and rewarding educational experience," said Ryan Asmus, a biology teacher at Syracuse Academy of Science, who worked in the Meinig School's Cosgrove Lab on protein signaling pathways in muscle stem cells. "I have learned so much about the biochemistry of stem cells and their importance in the study of cancer and cancer therapies, specifically in cancer and tissue regeneration. These experiences have caused me to refocus on the skills students can develop from inquiry-based investigations. I look forward to integrating this material into my own high school classes."

"It was an eye-opening and rewarding experience all around," said Meinig School Assistant Professor Ben Cosgrove of working with Asmus. "He was a quick learner and valuable contributor to our research team, and we enjoyed working with him on the challenges of translating our stem-cell science to the high school classroom. We look forward to staying connected to Ryan’s teaching efforts throughout the next year."

Cosgrove added, "The NYSTEM RET program provides an invaluable opportunity to bridge the research labclassroom divide and interact directly with teachers from a variety of classroom environments."

As follow up to the summer program, graduate fellows will make multiple visits to each teacher’s classroom during the coming academic year as their new curriculum is implemented, and teachers will also participate in call-back sessions.

With exposure to real-world, cutting-edge experiences like these, teachers can bring research into the pre-college classroom, with an ultimate goal of helping students to see the power of science for addressing real-world problems.

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