Issaquah High School teacher researches at Fred Hutchinson

September 4, 2012

By Lillian O'Rorke

Tricia Vannoy counts bacterial colonies on an agar plate. Contributed

Most of the year Tricia Vannoy teaches at Issaquah High School, but this summer she got to be the student.

For two and a half weeks, she got to peer at chromosomes through a high-powered microscope and rediscover how to ask the questions that lay at the heart of science.

Vannoy was one of about 20 science teachers selected to spend part of their summer vacation working alongside scientists in laboratories at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Now in its 22nd year, the Science Education Partnership program invites educators to dive into real scientific research, learning concepts and techniques while trying out various lab kits to decide which ones to use in next year’s curriculum.

“Our goal is for teachers to bring back what they learn over the summer to help jumpstart their students’ knowledge of bioscience and research and perhaps kindle their interest in jobs or careers in science,” Nancy Hutchison, director of the program, said in a statement.

Learning science, she added, is like learning a foreign language.

“By participating in the Science Education Partnership, teachers explore the whole country, they get immersed,” she said. “After a couple of weeks, they have begun to think like the ‘locals’ and see how the research culture really works.”

Shortly after Vannoy became a teacher several years ago, she heard about the program and was intrigued. Now that she is in the process of getting her national board certification, Vannoy said she thought summer school would be a nice fit.

A week into the July 9-25 program, Vannoy already had pages full of ideas for biology and forensics classes next year. One of them is to use a lab kit called Private Eye. It uses loupes, mini handheld magnifying glasses found in most science classrooms, to hone students’ observational skills and come up with ideas for experiments.

“It forces the kids to really think about what are they seeing, what questions do they want to ask,” Vannoy said.

Posing questions and designing experiments around those questions, she added, is what science is all about.

“If you go to ‘The Hutch,’ that is what they do all day,” she said. “And that is the fun part of science.”

The Private Eye kit is one of many science kits Fred Hutch loans to teachers like Vannoy who participate in the summer program. Costing as much as $10,000 to put together, the kits have supplies for varies classroom experiments, including bacterial transformation and fruit-fly genetics.

“One thing that I really appreciate about this program is that they have the lead teachers in there and they have done a great job talking through — ‘OK, we’ve done this lab, now what are some ways to help your students get the most out of it?’” Vannoy said. “It’s one thing to run a lab, it’s another thing to run it with 32 students.”

She said she already does similar labs in her own classroom but does not have the nice equipment that comes in the kits. One of the tools she can’t wait to introduce to her students is the one used for DNA gel electrophoresis.

“It’s a really fun lab,” Vannoy said. “I really loved the electrophoresis. If you’ve ever watched ‘CSI,’ it’s the technology that allows you to visualize DNA.”

Students begin with a sample of DNA, from the kit or their own, and put it in a gel that resembles a slab of Jell-O. When an electrical current is run through the gel, the DNA will move at different speeds depending on the DNA’s size, Vannoy explained, adding that the students will get to play around with different voltages.

“I can see the kids really loving it because it’s very visual and they’re trying different things and seeing what happens,” she said. “It’s more inquiry-based.”

For another portion of the program, Vannoy spent five days working one-on-one with Jennifer Cech, a molecular and cellular biology graduate student at the University of Washington. Cech is researching the stickleback fish and how the local variety differs from sicklebacks elsewhere in the world.

“I really enjoyed working with her. All of molecular biology is really interesting to me,” said Vannoy, who before getting her master’s in teaching earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and biochemistry. “I got to do some really interesting microscope work with her. I had worked with microscopes before but not the microscopes she has in her lab. Antibodies are tagged with fluorescent proteins so you can actually see them.”

While the technology was cool, Vannoy said the No. 1 thing she hopes to take back to her students from her work in the research lab is the importance of trial and error.

“Sometimes you learn more from a failed experiment because you can ask ‘What happened?’” she said. “Getting my students to appreciate that is really important.”

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