Center stages bio-education blitz in Madison schools

April 25, 2007 By Adam Dylewski

The elementary school kids sit rapt, their once-darting gazes now focused on the show at hand.

A new Pixar movie, perhaps? Not quite — these children are spellbound by science.

Photo of bikes and shadows

Undergraduate Rachael Lancor (left) works with a young volunteer to demonstrate the conduction of electrons by safely transferring energy from a plasma ball to an illuminated light tube during Family Science Night at Emerson Elementary School. The event was sponsored by the Center for Biology Education and involved several outreach presentations by UW–Madison experts.

Photo: Jeff Miller

Some build swirling comets from dry ice, dirt, coal and water. Down the hall, others dip their toes into the world of engineering by constructing seaworthy toy boats. A chorus of children’s laughter bubbles from a nearby room as a classmate’s mop of blonde hair stands on end, caused by the static electricity created by the Van der Graaf generator he holds.

These were all typical scenes at the recent Family Science Night held at Emerson Elementary School, made possible by the long-running partnership between the Madison Metropolitan School District and the Center for Biology Education (CBE). Largely thanks to the work of CBE’s outreach program directors Robert Bohanan, Dolly Ledin and Kevin Niemi, the center was recently honored by the school district with a nomination for a distinguished service award.

Emerson’s Family Science Night is just a drop in the huge pool of CBE's community endeavors. It did not disappoint.

Seven-year-old Gavin Lawson was amazed by the Tesla Coil he saw at a session held by UW–Madison physics outreach specialist Rachael Lancor. She explained the nature of lightning and electricity to a packed room of giddy school children.

“Electrics are everywhere. Everywhere!” said the awestruck Lawson before bolting back to the purple ball of plasma emitted by the Tesla Coil.

Eliciting insight into science is paramount to CBE’s goals.

“We are interested in teaching biology in a more meaningful way,” says Nelson, who also is a professor of biochemistry. To do so, CBE goes straight to the source by providing professional development to legions of Madison-area elementary, middle and high school biology teachers.

“When you talk to graduate students about what led them into science,” says Nelson, “very often the answer is one good teacher in grade school or high school… But just as one good teacher can really excite you about science, one bad one can turn you off so completely on it.”

According to CBE associate director Jane Harris Cramer, the center recognizes that although many elementary school biology teachers have a deep background in education, they might not have an equally deep background in science with regard to content and process. CBE’s strategy focuses on engaging teachers to become familiar with science and comfortable with its current developments. Just as essential is an understanding of the process: what it is to raise a hypothesis, gather data and analyze it. The teachers can then pass on this improved appreciation of science onto their students.

K-12 outreach makes up only half of CBE’s contributions. According to Cramer, the center also works broadly with undergrads in terms of research experience and service learning, showing science students how community engagement can be a profound part of their education.

In its quest to improve biology education in K-12 and beyond, CBE formed hundreds of collaborations with faculty and students on campus, as well as science and education-focused organizations throughout Wisconsin and beyond.

“It took me three years to figure out whom we all work with,” admits Nelson, though he says the sheer size and scope of CBE is vital to its ongoing work in creating a cultural shift in the university.

“[Since CBE was founded 15 years ago,] what’s changed is the extent to which we are involved in trying to move the university culture from one that honors and awards research almost exclusively, to a culture that acknowledges and rewards teaching as well,” says Nelson. “In the long haul, that might be our biggest contribution.”

CBE also serves broader campuswide programs such as the Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE). PEOPLE reaches out to inner-city high schoolers from Madison and Milwaukee. Beginning during the summer after sixth grade, PEOPLE operates with many groups on campus to prepare students for college through coursework, workshops and career exploration. Most of the PEOPLE students that come through the six-year program successfully enroll at UW–Madison with full-ride scholarships.

CBE takes on duties related to their science education, aiding in the potential development of a new generation of scientists. Nelson says PEOPLE gives the center a chance to influence would-be Badgers who might not consider careers in science.

Still, despite the success of PEOPLE, many students still slip through the cracks. “The trouble is that the pipeline is so leaky, so even if a kid has a spark of interest in high school, they don’t stay in,” says Nelson.

CBE faces other obstacles in improving biology education. Funding is always an issue, says Cramer, as is the inherent dilemma of keeping CBE trim and focused while undertaking so many collaborations.

Finally, there are constraints on the biology teachers themselves. According to Cramer, recent legislation abolished a policy that provided teachers with substitutes on days when they embarked on professional development. In the wake of logistical issues and financial belt-tightening, CBE is exploring new modes of teacher education online.

Nonetheless, while reminiscing about some formative wisdom a college professor imparted on her, Cramer remains optimistic about the center’s work.

“The professor was saying ‘use your powers of observation, be open to new ideas, don’t keep your mind in a box and don't shut out new sources of information and perspectives.’ I think we convey all these things through our programs. We talked about the constraints, but the positives are key. We are in one of the best institutions in the world for science. Isn’t it logical we’d want to share that?”