Summer 2013

Great Science

Boston teachers and Tufts researchers collaborate to engage high school students in learning about disease

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A: Brain tissue of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, showing senile plaques B: Light micrograph of fat accumulation (shown by white spaces) in liver tissue C: A magnified image showing the typical morphology of cancer cells, in vitro.

An infectious-disease curriculum piloted by researchers at Tufts Medical School and 10 teachers at two public high schools in Boston has shown promise in increasing students’ scientific and health literacy, according to an article published in May in the journal Academic Medicine.

The curriculum is part of the NIH-funded Great Diseases Project, designed expand students’ knowledge of the so-called “great diseases” (infectious disease, neurological disorders, metabolic disease, and cancer).

The real-world approach to teaching students about infectious disease succeeded by boosting engagement, science literacy and critical thinking among the participating juniors and seniors from Boston Latin School and Madison Park Technical and Vocational High School, according to the article, which was co-authored by Berri Jacque, a research assistant professor with the Great Diseases Project and co-director of the Center for Translational Science Education in the medical school’s Department of Anatomy and Cellular Biology, Katherine Malanson, a postdoctoral fellow with the Great Diseases Project, and the 10 public school educators.

Tests taken before and after the initiative showed that students’ understanding of the course content more than doubled, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Another positive outcome was that the high school teachers gained self-confidence about teaching the material.

“How science is taught in high school differs greatly from how it is carried out in a real-life laboratory,” said Karina F. Meiri, a professor at the medical school and member of the Cell, Molecular & Developmental Biology; Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics; and Neuroscience program faculties at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences. “Our curriculum teaches critical thinking, based on scientific inquiry as it is actually practiced in laboratories around the world.”

The curriculum was designed by two Boston high school biology teachers in concert with Tufts faculty, postdoctoral researchers and medical students. After core concepts were identified, the Tufts team developed an intensive series of seminars to prepare the high school teachers to develop the course. The teachers then worked together to create lesson plans and activities geared for junior and senior biology students at Boston Latin and Madison Park.

“A major issue in the high-stakes testing environment of high schools is the tension between covering a wide range of topics (breadth) and learning deeply about each topic (depth),” said Gene Roundtree, a biology teacher at Madison Park High School, who used the curriculum in his remedial class for students preparing for the standardized achievement tests Massachusetts public high school students must pass in order to graduate. “I believe our curriculum is successful because every lesson is a unique challenge—students participate in labs, debates, competitive card games and even an auction as part of the curriculum,” he said. Common infections like the common cold and the flu anchored the curriculum in familiar terms.

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