SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — As the world they study gets smaller, teachers attending a Southern Maine Community College genetics workshop found expanded ways to teach science.
“There’s a lot to learn from these little critters,” said Gina Foley, a biology instructor at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, Mass.
The “little critters” are microscopic worms called C. elegans, and Foley and 21 other collegiate and high school teachers spent last week studying strands of their DNA as part of the Genomics Approaches in Biosciences workshop presented by the DNA Learning Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
The workshops emphasize expanding learning at community colleges and secondary schools while unveiling the composition of the elemental building blocks of life.
“A lot of times, the community colleges are left out,” Foley said.
The Long Island, N.Y.-based lab uses federal National Science Foundation funds to offer 12 workshops at host schools, said Amy Niselle, Ph.D., of the DNA Learning Center.
“A lot of educators get really excited at the possibility of bringing lessons back to students,” said Bruce Nash, Ph.D, the learning center instructor guiding the workshop.
Elizabeth Ehrenfeld, an adjunct professor of science at SMCC, coordinated the workshop locally.
“Biology is changing,” she said. “The genome revolution means different teaching is needed.”
The 12 summer workshops are spread throughout the country, Nash said. SMCC was a good site because of good computer and science labs, and abundant plant and animal life allowing participants to gather samples for study.
The learning center provided the microscopic worms, and participants from as far away as Indiana and Tennessee also extracted DNA samples from algae, snails and other local life forms.
Samples were sent to a lab in New Jersey, where the DNA sequences were mapped and returned the results to South Portland for more study late last week.
Late last week, the teachers got a view of the molecular structure of their samples, displayed on a laptop, and entered the world of bioinformatics.
“It can be the hardest thing to learn,” Niselle said about merging lab and computer skills.
It can also be economically rewarding for students, creating a career path Ehrenfeld and University of Southern Maine biology department Chairwoman Dr. Lisa Moore said should begin before college.
Ehrenfeld said what she learned last week can be implemented in SMCC science courses that are not geared to future science majors.
“This is teaching science, rather than just having a lab here and there,” she said.
The workshop drew high school teachers, community college instructors and those at four-year University of Maine system schools. Falmouth native Libby Farrell, a biology teacher at Chattanooga State Community College, said the workshop was more than just a homecoming, it provided professional development with techniques she could implement.
Ehrenfeld said the workshop was a good fit for high school teachers involved with the science, technology, engineering and math programs combined under the STEM acronym.
Winslow High School teacher Kelly Daigneault said not everything she learned last week could immediately be taught in her classes, but the background knowledge about emerging research in genomics thrilled her.
“It gets me excited for the school year,” she said.
After peering at samples through a microscope, Foley summed up how the workshop helped her last week.
“My goal is to hone in on my skills to better teach it,” she said.
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