For five Oklahoma science teachers, “bugs” have taken on a whole new meaning this summer. As Foundation Scholars, the group of secondary school teachers is spending four weeks at OMRF studying microbes—tiny, living organisms like bacteria and fungi, many of which cause disease.
With guidance from senior-level OMRF scientists, the teachers assume the role of students to learn lab techniques that they can take back to their schools to share with their students. “The thought of working alongside scientists made me nervous at first, but I’m enjoying this experience,” said Gayla Hatfield, a science teacher at Okemah Middle School. “It is challenging, but the support I get is more than enough to help me learn scientific topics and skills.”
At lab benches stacked with petri dishes, microscopes and computers within arm’s reach, the teachers grow, observe and discuss the tiny life forms and how they can be used to creatively teach students biology and other sciences.
The scholars, all secondary-level teachers, were selected from a statewide pool of applicants. They will receive a $2,000 stipend as well as $1,000 in lab and classroom supplies. Since the program started in 1988, almost 100 Oklahoma teachers have completed the program.
“Hopefully my students will see a greater connection between science and their daily lives,” said Deanna Abbott, a teacher at Pryor High School. “It would be great if, through my experience, some of my students decided to pursue careers in research.”
“Across the board, science teachers struggle to stretch their classroom budgets and offer their students high-quality instruction,” said program facilitator Tim Mather, Ph.D. “In this program, we help scholars design classic, yet inexpensive, experiments that they can duplicate easily in their classrooms. Their enthusiasm spills over to their fellow educators, too, and that helps the whole school.”
The summer course, titled, “Learning from Bugs: Using microbes as a platform for studying biology,” includes lecture and group discussion, as well as hands-on laboratory experience. The group studies how growth and genetics are influenced by dietary and environmental changes using the bacteria E. coli as a model organism.
For Amy Wilkerson, who teaches at Cameron Junior and Senior High Schools, the summer at OMRF has paid tremendous dividends. “I have learned more science concepts here than I have in any other professional development program. The mentors are phenomenal and are very concerned about the quality of science education—even in Cameron, Oklahoma.”
Tara Barker, a teacher at Guthrie Junior High, believes that a key part of the program is the camaraderie that grows among participating teachers. “The group dynamic lets us discuss ways to incorporate these experiments into our classrooms,” she said. “We are treated like professionals and are allowed to control the direction of the program to fit our individual needs and curriculum.”
Haskell High School’s Cora James already sees ways her experience will help her students when she returns to school. “Now I can incorporate accurate, student-led research projects instead of depending on pre-prepared experiments. All of my students will benefit from it.”