Energizing Science Learning

PSC programs in science education build bioinformatics expertise at minority-serving institutions and help to jumpstart the Pittsburgh region toward a cyber-savvy workforce

The PSC EOT team (l to r): Robin Scibek, Debra Nigra, Cheryl Begandy (director), Vivian Benton and Pallavi Ishwad

Science Training for Faculty, Grad Students & Undergrads

MARC: “We’ve implemented a multi-disciplinary course in sequence-based bioinformatics at more than 10 universities,” says PSC scientist Hugh Nicholas, who directs PSC’s Minority Access to Research Careers (MARC) program. As of 2011, with NIH renewal of the program for five years, Nicholas and his colleague Alex Ropelewski are building a concentration or minor in bioinformatics at five partner minority-serving institutions (MSIs): North Carolina A&T; University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez; Johnson C. Smith University; Tennessee State University; and Jackson State University.

Since 2001, the MARC program evolved from providing individual training in what was at first a newly emerging discipline, bioinformatics, to focus on the development of curricula and research programs. “The program has shifted direction,” says Ricardo González, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, School of Medicine, and co-principal investigator with Nicholas. “We’ve become good enough to establish bioinformatics programs or tracks at these universities and to provide a solid foundation for their faculty and students to carry out research in this field.”

Many peer-reviewed papers have already resulted from the program, notes González, especially important in light of a 2011 study (Science, August 19, 2011) finding that black scientists were a third less likely than white counterparts to get a research project funded. “The PSC program has been addressing the uneven playing field that affects black researchers for 10 years.”

Along with workshops at PSC, the MARC staff travels to partner MSIs to offer intensive on-site workshops. The program also provides a model bioinformatics curriculum, with course materials in related aspects of biology, computational science and mathematics, and offers teaching assistance for newly established courses. “At each campus with which we’ve partnered,” says Nicholas, “we’ve trained people who are now capable of teaching a basic bioinformatics course.”

Since 2003, the program has included a two-week workshop at PSC, the MARC Summer Institute, that trains graduate students — who can use bioinformatics tools for dissertation research — and faculty who plan to establish an introductory bioinformatics course at their home institution. The program also offers a 10-week internship at PSC, with nine participants this year. These internships build connections for young scientists with resources at two major research universities, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, and have often led to published research.

More information: http://marc.psc.edu

Participants are learning tools of bioinformatics at the MARC 2012 Summer Institute.

Training for High School Teachers in Science & Math

“Introducing ‘cool’ technology into the classroom engages students,” says PSC’s director of education, outreach and training, Cheryl Begandy, “and increases their willingness to stay with subjects they may otherwise find too complicated or just uninteresting.” For Begandy and Pallavi Ishwad, education program director of PSC’s National Resource for Biomedical Supercomputing (NRBSC), the goal is to help re-define high-school science instruction, so that it can better prepare future scientists, engineers and educators to participate in the cyber-savvy 21st-century marketplace.

BEST: BEST: Begun in 2007 by Ishwad, Better Educators of Science for Tomorrow (BEST) introduces high-school teachers to a bioinformatics curriculum adapted from PSC’s MARC program for undergrad and graduate science students. Drafted and improved through classroom usage by an interdisciplinary group of STEM teachers, the BEST curriculum offers ready-to-use lesson plans for single-subject educators to extend their skills to the multidisciplinary outlook of bioinformatics, which draws on physics, chemistry, biology, computer science and math.

From June 15 to 21, Ishwad held a BEST workshop for teachers from the PA Cyber Charter School and from MARC partner MSI North Carolina A&T. She also extended BEST outreach efforts through high-school outreach units at other MARC partner MSIs, including Jackson State and Tennessee State.

“You have provided a tremendous amount of expertise and guidance in helping to shape our program,” said Edwina Kinchington, of the Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy, one of six southwest Pennsylvania high schools that have adopted BEST curricula as part of permanent elective course offerings. “The gift of this program to students is immeasurable,” said biology teacher Rebecca Day of Frazier High School.

More information on BEST: http://www.psc.edu/eot/k12/best.php

CAST: In 2011, PSC received a $100,000 grant from the DSF Charitable Foundation that extends Computation and Science for Teachers (CAST), PSC’s program — begun in 2008 — that has introduced many Southwest Pennsylvania STEM teachers to easy-to-use modeling and simulation tools for classroom learning.

The DSF grant funds a three-way effort among PSC and the Maryland Virtual High School Project, which helped to pioneer the use of computational thinking in high-school learning, and the Math & Science Collaborative of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which provides educational services to Allegheny County’s 42 suburban school districts.

Educators from these organizations, with PSC providing overall direction and management, developed a Professional Development Program (PDP), an integrated set of modules to train teachers in western Pennsylvania in how to incorporate computational reasoning and the tools of modeling and simulation into math and science curricula.

The PDP’s Depth track, the second of two tracks, was piloted during the CAST 2012 Summer Institute, from August 6-9. “CAST,” says PSC’s Begandy, “brings to the classroom the same problem-solving, technology-rich approaches currently used in scientific research and in business.”

More information on CAST: http://www.psc.edu/index.php/cast

Open Education Resources

Two PSC educational programs, CMIST and SAFE-Net, provide open education resources on the World Wide Web for educators, students and parents. SAFE-Net’s website provides free materials to help parents, educators, students and individuals understand questions of cyber-security associated with wide usage of the Internet.

Through NRBSC, PSC also provides modules and vivid 3D video animations developed through its CMIST program (Computational Modules in Science Teaching). Three CMIST modules are available through the website: Molecular Transport in Cells; Big Numbers in Small Spaces: Simulating Atoms, Molecules and Brownian Motion; and Enzyme Structure and Function.

SAFE-Net (free materials): http://safenet.3rox.net

CMIST (free modules): http://nrbsc.org/cmist