Education, Outreach and Training: Energizing Science Learning

With a quartet of programs in science education, PSC gives the Pittsburgh region a jumpstart toward a cyber-savvy workforce

“It’s one thing to read about it, and another thing entirely to see it happening,” says Marian Opest, a biology teacher at Penn Hills High School, a suburb of Pittsburgh. What stirs her enthusiasm is CMIST (Computational Modules in Science Teaching), one of four programs in secondary science education that PSC has introduced to teachers and to science classrooms in the Pittsburgh region and beyond over the past four years.

“It’s the difference between reading a textbook and visually experiencing a topic such as diffusion or osmosis,” says Pallavi Ishwad, education outreach specialist for the National Resource for Biomedical Supercomputing (NRBSC), PSC’s biomedical program. A former high-school biology teacher herself, Ishwad has seen first-hand the difference that computational tools, such as vivid 3D animations produced by supercomputer simulations, can make in science learning.

“Introducing ’cool’ technology into the classroom engages students,” says PSC's director of outreach and education, Cheryl Begandy, “and increases their willingness to stay with subjects they may otherwise find too complicated or just uninteresting.” For Begandy and Ishwad along with other PSC staff the goal is to help in re-imagining high-school science instruction so that it better attracts future scientists, engineers and educators. Ultimately the goal is to create the cyber-savvy workforce demanded by the 21st-century marketplace.

PSC’s first venture into science education, Computation and Science for Teachers (CAST) has over the past three years introduced teachers to easy-to-use modeling and simulation tools. Based on ideas pioneered in the Maryland Virtual High School Project, the CAST approach to “computational thinking” can be incorporated in classroom use across the math science curriculum.

Over 40 teachers from southwestern Pennsylvania have participated in CAST’s weeklong summer workshop followed by quarterly sessions throughout the school year. “We actually built the model of the water cycle,” says CAST participant Jim Lear, physics teacher at Pittsburgh’s Oakland Catholic High School. “It was really neat to see the variables change and the effect on the amount of water as vapor, liquid, and vapor precipitating back to liquid in our model.”

Introduced in 2007, CMIST provides multi-disciplinary teaching modules — including lecture slides, animations and lesson plans — as ready-to-use DVDs. Produced with high-quality, biologically realistic 3-D animations, the modules are geared to lead students toward an integrated understanding of biology, chemistry, physics, math and computation.

The initial CMIST module, “Molecular Transport in Cells” — produced with software called MCell and DReAMM, co-authored by NRBSC director Joel Stiles — presents important principles of osmosis and diffusion. It has prompted enthusiastic feedback and created interest nationally. “I passed the DVD to some teachers,” wrote Manorama Talavier, a school district curriculum administrator from Virginia. “They love it and want more.”

To date over 500 people locally and nationally have attended CMIST presentations. A second module, “Big Numbers in Small Spaces: Simulating Atoms, Molecules, and Brownian Motion,” premiered in May, with a talk by Stiles at the National Science Bowl Finals in Washington, DC. Ishwad introduced it to Pittsburgh-area teachers at a one-day July workshop. Available here (free):

From “Big Numbers in Small Spaces,” this view of the CMIST virtual laboratory from inside a glass beaker shows the splash from a drop of water fallen into the beaker, and then the CMIST movie zooms in to show the quantity of water molecules contained within a single droplet from the splash.


PSC’s Pallavi Ishwad with participants in a BEST workshop.

Begun in 2007 by Ishwad, Better Educators of Science for Tomorrow (BEST) introduces high school teachers to a bioinformatics curriculum adapted from an NRBSC program called MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) for undergrad and graduate science students. Drafted by an interdisciplinary group of teachers representing physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and technology who participated in MARC, the BEST curriculum facilitates a cross-disciplinary approach and brings awareness to high school students about bioinformatics. BEST offers ready-to-use lesson plans for single-subject trained teachers to teach a multidisciplinary subject like bioinformatics in high schools.

Ishwad piloted BEST in three schools this year. “I am excited to use what I learned here,” said Dean Walker, a physics teacher at Seneca Valley High School outside Pittsburgh, “to both inspire students who love biology but hate physics, as well as provide students with a better feel for contemporary positions in the science job market.”


CompEx students with computer science teacher Todd Ollendyke.

Making its debut in 2009, Computation Exploration (CompEx) is a high-performance computing teaching module for high-school computer science. Developed by PSC outreach staff and scientists Robin Flaus, Phil Blood, Bryon Gill, Tom Maiden, Nathan Stone and John Urbanic, with input from Carnegie Mellon student Srihari Seshadri, CompEx presents basics of message passing (MPI) in parallel processing and guides students through development of their own parallel program to solve a Sudoku puzzle.

PSC piloted CompEx in February at Upper St. Clair High School south of Pittsburgh. Nine students completed the course, writing programs and running them on Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud. They were also introduced to data analysis with widely used software called Hadoop. Said one student, “I enjoyed working with high level computers that we would not have had access to without a fat wallet.”