Education, Outreach and Training:
Energizing Science Learning

PSC programs in science education give the Pittsburgh region a jumpstart toward a cyber-savvy workforce

“It’s the difference between reading a textbook and visually experiencing a topicsuch as diffusion or osmosis,” says Pallavi Ishwad, education program director of the National Resource for Biomedical Supercomputing (NRBSC), PSC’s biomedical program. She’s speaking of CMIST > (Computational Modules in Science Teaching), one of several programs in secondary science education that PSC has introduced to teachers and to science classrooms in the Pittsburgh region and beyond over the past five years. A former high-school biology teacher, 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’sdirector 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 prepares future scientists, engineers and educators. Ultimately the goal is to create the cyber-savvy workforce demanded by the 21st century marketplace.

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

From “Enzyme Structure and Function,” the CMIST virtual laboratory (top) includes a spectrophotometer, scale, micropipettes and other common lab equipment used in MCell simulations of an experiment illustrating enzyme kinetics. This CMIST module also depicts a cross section of a hepatic lobule from the liver (bottom). Blood vessels (red) radiate outward from the central vein toward the hepatic arteries and hepatic portal veins at the periphery. Amongst the vasculature are hepatocytes (brown), the primary cells of the liver.

Free CMIST Modules:


PSC Education Program Director Pallavi Ishwad (front row, second from right) and PSC staff member Alex Ropelewski (back right) with participants in the BEST Summer Workshop at PSC (June 14-24, 2010).

Pittsburgh-area high school students (l to r) Annie Kayser, Creg Milko and Shilo Crook present their project at the BEST Summer 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 and improvised through classroom usage over three years by an interdisciplinary group of high school teachers representing physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and technology, the BEST curriculum offers ready-to-use lesson plans for single-subject trained educators to teach a multidisciplinary subject like bioinformatics in high schools.

During the 2009-10 academic year, Ishwad piloted BEST as a permanent course offering in three southwest Pennsylvania high schools. Four high school students from these piloting schools completed a first-ever Summer Research Internship Program in Bioinformatics at PSC guided by senior scientists from PSC. Their teachers presented the results of these internships in November at the 2010 SC Education Resource Fair in New Orleans.

Two additional schools participated in the 2010 BEST summer workshop and will offer the BEST curriculum in the upcoming school 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.”


Do Internet passwords protect personal information from unwanted intrusion? How can you be sure if someone on-line is who they say they are? Does anti-virus software really protect your hard-drive?

To help parents, educators, students and individuals with these questions and many others associated with wide usage of the Internet, PSC in 2010 introduced SAFE-Net, a program funded by an NSF grant for Cyber Safety Awareness. Through SAFE-Net, PSC presents workshops that train educators and provide materials for classroom learning — developed in collaboration with the CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) Program at CMU's Software Engineering Institute. These materials address cyber threats, measures of protection, and questions of cyber ethics that arise as a result of social networking and other wide uses of the Internet.

“Many Internet users lack an understanding of common threats they may face online,” says Begandy. “Among parents, many lack confidence that their child is safe when using the Internet.” In 2010, PSC held two Train-the-Teacher workshops introducing SAFE-Net to 18 Pittsburgh-area teachers. Through a videoconference, arranged via PSC networking infrastructure, Wiam Younes, training and awareness coordinator with CMU’s Information Security Office, consulted with 75 educators at six school districts in eastern Pennsylvania. Titled “The Educator’s Role in Safe Computing,” this three-hour interactive program highlighted how K-12 educators can raise awareness about cyber security and safety in the schools.

The SAFE-Net website provides free information, including classroom and parent materials about cyber-security issues, with lessons geared to grade levels 1-3, 4-6, and 7-12.”


Funding for these PSC education and outreach programs has come from Pittsburgh-area foundations — The Buhl Foundation, Grable Foundation and Heinz Endowments — and from the NIH along with additional support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the NSF TeraGrid program.