Winter 2018

Teaching the Great Diseases

A Bingham Trust grant will boost the Tufts-designed STEM curriculum.

By David Levin

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Berri Jacque listens to a lesson on infectious diseases at East Boston High School. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Making complex biological and medical concepts accessible and compelling to young people is a passion for Berri Jacque, director of the Center for Translational Science Education (CTSE) at Tufts.

Since 2009, Jacque and CTSE co-director Karina Meiri have been developing the “Great Diseases” STEM curriculum in collaboration with Boston Public School teachers. Largely funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to date, the curriculum includes four modules that each span six weeks—infectious disease, neurological disorders, metabolic disease, and cancer—and uses real-world medical examples to explain difficult scientific concepts to high school students.

“You could teach all about biology in a vacuum, or you could teach how it relates to the flu, or to cancer,” Jacque said. “In our curriculum, students learn about molecular dogma—like RNA, DNA, and proteins—in the context of disease.”

And now, thanks to a $1 million grant from The Bingham Trust, the Tufts-designed “Great Diseases” curriculum will reach even more budding scientists and empower them to manage their own health.

While CTSE faculty and postdoctoral fellows have been training teachers one-on-one either in person or through online mentoring—about 850 teachers have completed the training so far—these methods aren’t scalable, especially as demand for the content is quickly growing. That’s where The Bingham Trust grant comes in: It will fund the “Teaching the Great Diseases” program, allowing CTSE to enrich the curriculum online and hire three William Bingham 2nd Fellows (as well as a fellows mentor) to both develop content and remotely guide educators around the world through the curriculum’s nuances via online minicourses. Teachers who complete these courses, which are flexible to fit busy schedules, will receive graduate or continuing-education credits—“as far as I know, we are the only medical school with a graduate program specifically designed for teachers who want to teach about heath and biomedical sciences,” Jacque said.

“The grant is a massive, transformative contribution that will let us focus on the teaching program itself,” he added. “We plan to chunk topics into minicourses, so teachers can zero in on something for a few days then bring it back to their classrooms.”

The fellows, meanwhile, will be required to conduct original research to gauge how well their processes are working, Jacque said. Ultimately, they will produce publications in peer-reviewed journals related to improving online teaching and learning.

“We’ll provide space for them to become experts on online teaching, so they can bridge the divide between science-speak and education-speak,” Jacque said. “Depending on their career goals, they may go on to work in higher education, and may want to run similar programs of their own, doing nonprofit or STEM-outreach work. We hope to equip them with the skills to do that.”

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Teaching the Great Diseases

A Bingham Trust grant will boost the Tufts-designed STEM curriculum.