Kindling the Kindlers

Carnegie Science Award Recognizes PSC STEM Education Programs

March 30, 2016

PSC has received the 2016 Carnegie Science Center Award for Leadership in STEM Education. The award recognized three PSC staff members: Pallavi Ishwad, Hugh Nicholas and Alexander Ropelewski.

The Science Center established its annual awards in 1997 to recognize individuals and organizations in western Pennsylvania that have made outstanding contributions in science and technology. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education Award “recognizes an individual, team or organization that demonstrates leadership in building literacy in science, technology, engineering and math.”

“We’re thrilled to see Hugh, Alex and Pallavi’s work recognized by the STEM Leadership award,” says Cheryl Begandy, PSC’s director of education, outreach and training. “Their work does more than educate students in bioinformatics; by increasing awareness of this discipline, it helps prepare young people—and our workforce—for the 21st Century.”

PSC’s Bioinformatics Education Team has developed and implemented bioinformatics curriculums at the graduate, undergraduate and high school levels.

Bridging the Bioinformatics Gap

The PSC STEM team began training researchers in bioinformatics—the use of computational methods to analyze and interpret biological data—as early as 1987. In 2001, they initiated a bioinformatics program at three minority-serving institutions (MSIs) through the NIH-funded MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) program.

“A major obstacle to preparing minority students for the STEM workforce is lack of access to relevant courses, degree programs and research opportunities at MSIs,” says Ropelewski, a longstanding MARC instructor and interim director of PSC’s Biomedical Applications Group. “These institutions often don’t have the resources to offer students access to advanced instrumentation and computational resources needed for bioinformatics work.”

The MARC program was designed to remedy this, focusing on creating both curriculum and research opportunities for faculty and students at MSIs—schools at which the undergraduate student body consists of over 50 percent minority students. To date, PSC’s MARC program has provided bioinformatics training and mentoring to hundreds of students and researchers at MSIs and helped dozens of institutions across the country develop bioinformatics classes or full curriculums. These schools include:

  • North Carolina Central University
  • Howard University
  • University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus
  • Morgan State University
  • University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez
  • University of Texas at El Paso
  • University of Texas at San Antonio
  • Johnson C. Smith University
  • North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University
  • Langston University
  • Tennessee State University
  • Jackson State University
  • Universidad Metropolitana, Puerto Rico

Starting High School Students on the STEM Path

In 2007, PSC staff adapted MARC for a high school audience through the BEST (Better Educators of Science for Tomorrow) Program. Today 10 area high schools are offering a full or integrated bioinformatics curriculum thanks to BEST. Training for teachers in the BEST program involves a summer workshop. The High School curriculum features an in-depth introduction to bioinformatics with real-life emphasis on 21st-century career awareness and readiness.

“Like MARC, BEST provides an innovative approach for acquiring 21st century STEM skills at the high school level,” says Ishwad, who leads the BEST program. “We developed the BEST high school curriculum with a multidisciplinary focus, integrating concepts from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and computing. This is unique among high school STEM offerings, but more accurately reflects the integrative nature of the STEM disciplines.”

The BEST curriculum has to date been adopted in 10 western Pennsylvania schools:

  • Pittsburgh Public School District–SciTech Academy
  • Our Lady of Sacred Heart High School, Coraopolis, Pa.
  • Oakland Catholic High School, Pittsburgh, Pa.
  • PA Cyber Charter School, Midland, Pa.
  • Ellwood City Area School District, Ellwood City, Pa.
  • Central Catholic High School, Pittsburgh, Pa.
  • Plum Borough School District, Plum, Pa.
  • Fort Cherry School District, McDonald, Pa.
  • Frazier High School, Perryopolis, Pa.
  • Winchester-Thurston High School, Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Carnegie Science Center announced the awardees on March 15. The PSC team will receive their award at a ceremony at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Music Hall in May 2016.