Teachers learn about emerging pathogens through catalyses program

Students part of the biomedical education group

For years, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics has predicted that the jobs of the future will shift more and more toward STEM fields – requiring training in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. STEM education does not come without challenges, however. Under-resourced schools often lack equipment necessary for instruction, and according to the U.S. Department of Education, the demand for teachers skilled in STEM subjects is higher than the number of applicants qualified to teach them.

The University of Florida’s Center for Precollegiate Education and Training, or CPET, is working with teachers across the state to improve bioscience and biomedical education in Florida’s secondary schools. The latest project, titled “Collaborating to Advance Teaching and Learning of Science Educators and Students,” or “CATALySES,” brought high school biology teachers to the University of Florida for two weeks to learn about UF’s innovative research into emerging pathogens. By bringing the teachers to campus, they were able to directly engage with professors and research staff from a variety of departments, helping them form lesson plans and labs that would support the biology education of their students.

“When thinking about a career in the sciences, many high school students do not consider infectious disease research,” said Dr. Mary Jo Koroly, the director of CPET. “CATALySES introduces teachers to the wide variety of research opportunities concerning emerging pathogens, while also giving them access to socially relevant content, skills, applications, and classroom resources, including an equipment locker.”

The equipment locker program, formally known as “Special Explorations for Teachers and Students,” or “SETS,” lets teachers borrow lab equipment that they would not otherwise be able to access. Because of this, teachers are able to recreate activities from the CATALySES summer program for their students.

Dr. Ryan Chastain-Gross, an academic advisor for CPET who received his Ph.D. from the UF College of Medicine, facilitated many of the labs and workshops—including “Mouthful of Microbes”, an authentic research experience designed for classroom use—and managed the program’s day-to-day schedule. It was a team effort, however, with workshops like “Ebola Epidemic” led by Dr. Julie Bokor, the assistant director of CPET, and “Plants Get Sick, Too!”, a full day of workshops led by the graduate students and postdoctoral associates of the department of plant pathology.

Carlia Vaughn, an AP biology teacher at Satellite Senior High School in Brevard County, suggested that incorporating infectious disease studies into her lesson plans could provide a key entry point for students, helping them to grasp important concepts in biology.

One activity she hopes to replicate in her classroom is a lab called “Pipetting for Design.” Due to budgeting constraints, her school does not have the micropipettes necessary for the lab, yet thanks to the equipment locker program, she will be able to ensure that her students experience the lab in the same manner that she did during CATALySES.

Many of the teachers discussed how the program would help them overcome challenges caused by a lack of resources, making textbook knowledge demonstrable through lab activities. Alejandro Krause, who teaches biology to English language learners at Blanche Ely High School in Pompano Beach, hopes to lead his students through bacterial DNA extraction.

“My school doesn’t have a lot of biotechnology equipment,” Krause said. Through the locker program, however, he can borrow equipment not available to him in Pompano Beach.

“Without the equipment, I would just have to talk about the theory,” he said.

Although most of the teachers came from other parts of the state, Dr. Adenike Akinyode, a biology teacher at Eastside High School in Gainesville, also attended the program. Akinyode received her Ph.D. from the department of animal sciences at UF. She teaches in both the traditional biology program and the International Baccalaureate program at Eastside.

“The main reason I came here was to begin to build a relationship between my students at Eastside and UF,” Akinyode said. At UF, students can access mass spectrometers, learn molecular biology techniques like polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and interact with subject-matter experts who can enhance their biology education. She hopes that bringing students to UF will help them understand how professional scientists apply the concepts they learn in class, opening their minds to new possibilities and career opportunities.

Drs. Kathleen Ryan, John Lednicky, Anthony Cannella, Natalie Dean, Erica Goss, and other Emerging Pathogens Institute researchers contributed to the program, giving lectures, facilitating laboratory workshops and aiding in other learning activities.

CATALySES received funding from the National Institutes of Health’s Science Education Partnership Award program, with both Koroly and Dr. J. Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, overseeing the design and implementation of the project. Drs. David Nelson and Wayne T. McCormack from the College of Medicine also played a key role in the program.

“CATALySES and other CPET programs are important methods of supplementing science education in Florida,” Morris said. “By working with secondary school teachers, we aim to help them design curricula that will inspire the next generation of science professionals.”