By Leah Small, University Public Affairs
As demand for professionals in STEM and health fields grows, Virginia Commonwealth University educators are working to get students interested in science as early as middle school.
The best way to hook them is to stress that scientific research isn’t all test tubes and quiet labs; it’s about engaging communities, said Patricia Slattum, Pharm.D., Ph.D., a professor at the VCU School of Pharmacy.
Slattum co-heads Project CRESST: Enhancing Clinical Research Education for Secondary Students and Teachers, an initiative that helps middle school and high school teachers instruct students on the basics of clinical research. CRESST also introduces students to STEM and health careers.
“I really love the idea of getting students to see research as something that’s interesting and applicable to their daily lives and that they can be researchers,” Slattum said. “That part of CRESST is what is appealing to me.”
CRESST is also led by Lisa Abrams, Ph.D, interim chair of the Foundations of Education Department in the School of Education. Suzanne Kirk, a former science teacher and museum educator, serves as project coordinator.
Rethinking science education
CRESST was funded by a $1.25 million five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Science Education Partnership Award. The project received instructional support from faculty in the College of Humanities and Sciences, the School of Medicine, and the Center for Clinical and Translational Research at VCU.
The team has brought together VCU researchers and faculty to help teachers develop lessons focused on the methodology and ethics of clinical research. The lessons also emphasize hands-on and inquiry-based approaches. This allows teachers to guide students by asking questions or posing scenarios, instead of relying on lectures or highly structured labs.
From 2011 to 2015, 93 teachers from more than 70 Virginia schools attended CRESST’s weeklong summer professional development academy at VCU. As part of the academy, teachers worked with VCU researchers to develop lesson plans that encourage students to act as budding scientists who investigate and study how obesity and food deserts impact their communities.
On March 11, the CRESST team will launch an online version of its curriculum, with the goal of reaching teachers nationally. Academy attendees will also meet for a reunion to share how they use their lesson plans.
Slattum said the partnership between School of Education and School of Pharmacy faculty provides a dynamic experience for the middle and high school educators. Abrams and Kirk related to the teachers as experts in K-12 education, while Slattum brought her expertise as a clinical researcher.
“I think we are a great team because we are really complementary in our skills. I had a lot to learn as far as looking at the problem from a different frame than I’m trained to,” Slattum said. “I knew the best practices and development for health professionals, but I had to learn the same for teachers.”
Abrams, who specializes in educational research and evaluation, developed methodology to measure ease in imparting research concepts after the academy. Teachers reported higher levels of self confidence in the use of inquiry-based teaching and experiential learning methods, and improved student engagement.
Abrams said the curriculum is an example of an overall trend toward experiential learning in science education.
“Experiential learning and inquiry-based teaching is a current priority in reform efforts in the science education field,” she said. “Students learn like scientists through inquiry-based projects where they are generating questions to be answered, conducting data collection and experiments to test their hypotheses. The students are really in the driver’s seat for how their experiments look, while the teacher facilitates the process.”
Currently, the CRESST team is seeking additional funding to shift the project’s mission toward informing students in rural areas about career options in the allied health professions.
“There is a need for qualified health professionals to assist rural and underserved populations,” Kirk said. “This is particularly true in areas where students think they have to move away from home for those jobs because they believe they aren’t out there. Students are just not aware of them.”
Rebecca Schieber, a sixth- and seventh-grade science teacher at Caroline Middle School, is dismayed when her students don’t eat breakfast before coming to school. She keeps a stash of granola bars just in case of hungry middle schoolers.
Schieber said CRESST allowed her to take her concerns about childhood nutrition a step further. She continues to teach a lesson she developed four years ago at the CRESST academy, about the importance of eating breakfast.
“Because I’m a science teacher and I’m kind of a health conscious person, I thought it was great that we could tie the two together,” she said. “Before CRESST, I always wanted to teach health consciousness in my science classes but I wasn’t sure how to do this.”
Schieber will present her lesson during the academy reunion in March. She has also developed “Think Before You Drink,” a lesson that informs students about the impacts of sugars in sodas. The students practiced their measurement skills by calculating the amount of sugar in their favorite drinks.
The CRESST team also gave Schieber ideas about how to make her genetics class interesting to seventh-graders and introduced her to a film on genetic diseases to incorporate with curriculum.
“CRESST showed me great hands-on activities to bring to the classroom. Teaching genetics to seventh-graders is tough, but CRESST taught me how to get them hooked,” Schieber said.
Aaron Dudley, a physical education and health teacher at Caroline Middle School, partnered with Schieber on “Think Before You Drink.” Dudley said he uses CRESST, as well as his own life lessons, to teach students the importance of good health. One of those personal experiences was his appearance on a “Steve Harvey Show” segment in January about overweight P.E. teachers. He was paired with celebrity trainer Shaun T on the NBC talk show, and has since started to lose weight.
“CRESST is a great program. I continue to incorporate what I learned in the academy in my lesson plans,” Dudley said. “I always try to reach out to my kids and talk to them about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and starting young.”
This article originally appeared on the VCU News website.