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Education Outreach launches innovative programs to promote science education

If past history is any indication, Salk’s award-winning Education Outreach program may be poised to garner a few new accolades in the not-too-distant future. Not only has it introduced a brand-new program that promotes virtual interactions between Salk scientists and elementary school students, but it recently received one of just seven pilot grants awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) through the organization’s new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Volunteer Program. Add these groundbreaking initiatives to Education Outreach’s existing High School Scholars program, March of Dimes High School Science Day and Mobile Science Lab, and it’s an even stronger formula for success in attracting young people to science studies and careers.

Salk’s Dona Mapston leads students in science-focused activities as part of the Institute’s Education Outreach program.

SciChat, the program for elementary students, uses Skype to enable students at Del Mar Hills Academy of Arts and Sciences in Del Mar, California, to ask Salk scientists general questions about their research and what it’s like to work in the field. The project’s goal is to let the students interact with scientists so they can picture themselves in similar roles someday.

“We are thrilled to have this new opportunity for young students to meet and talk with our scientists,” says Ellen Potter, director of the Education Outreach program. “We are now able to bring the Salk to the students when the students can’t come to us. It is a great way to extend our outreach and share our excitement for scientific discovery.”

The first SciChat took place February 11, when Abby Buchwalter, a postdoctoral fellow in Martin Hetzer’s lab, described her research to nearly 30 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students during their lunch break. Seven more SciChats took place over the next four months, and plans call for the popular program to continue into the next academic year.

The AAAS grant will fund a pilot initiative at Salk called New Frontiers in Science Education. The program will bring San Diego-area high school science teachers together with Salk scientists to develop curricula based on the state-of-the-art research taking place at the Institute. Ronald Evans, an HHMI investigator, holder of the March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology and an international authority on hormones who has long been committed to fostering relationships with local educators, sponsored the proposal on behalf of Salk.

Students gather in the Salk courtyard with Salk scientists and staff during March of Dimes High School Science Day.

During the first year of the project, three teachers and Salk scientists, including Evans, will take part in focus groups and workshops to identify specific areas of Salk research that lend themselves to adaptation for the classroom. Working collaboratively, the scientists and teachers will then develop appropriate curriculum and support materials that incorporate elements of state and national science standards. Local high school teachers will be recruited to participate in the second year of the grant, and during the summer, the teachers will also have opportunities to spend time in the laboratory with a volunteer research scientist to observe how actual research is carried out.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to leverage the scientific expertise of Salk investigators and the enthusiasm and classroom experience of the participating teachers,” says Dona Mapston, Education Outreach specialist. “It will be fascinating to see what comes out of the process.”