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Collaboration Promotes NASA-Bioscience Education
NASA has a long history of working with a variety of public or nonprofit education groups to further its missions and goals. Sometimes the work is done jointly, and other times NASA funds organizations to realize their visions that also benefit NASA. Recently, NASA helped support education efforts by the HudsonAlpha Institute. HudsonAlpha, located in Huntsville, Ala., is a nonprofit research organization that is part of a cluster of life science research, development and manufacturing groups. Many of the associated companies develop diagnostic, therapeutic or laboratory supplies, which at times are based on discoveries from HudsonAlpha’s research labs.

Two goals of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) engagement program at HudsonAlpha are to prepare the future biotechnology industry workforce and to cultivate an awareness of the roles of genetics and biotechnology in people’s lives. HudsonAlpha works with students and teachers in the state of Alabama through hands-on learning opportunities and summer camps. With partial financial and in-kind support from NASA, the initiatives HudsonAlpha has developed have had a positive impact on science learning in Alabama.

A colorful exhibit in a large room

The "Cells! Life at a Pond" exhibit opened in March 2011 at the Sci-Quest Hands-on Science Center in Huntsville, Ala. Image Credit: HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology

“Cells! Life at a Pond” Exhibit

The pond exhibit, which was funded by NASA and supported by U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, opened in March 2011 at Sci-Quest Hands-on Science Center in Huntsville, Ala. The exhibit highlights the types of cellular life present in a pond environment and focuses on bacterial, plant and animal cells. Students can explore the components of the cell types and view the cells at various magnifications using large touchscreens. Narrative throughout the exhibit discusses the differences between cell types and the wide variety of cells found across the world’s environments. The exhibit also has audio and visual capabilities so students can view videos, connect to the Internet or link to images from a digital microscope.

From March 2011 until April 2012, over 60,000 visitors explored and interacted with the exhibit at Sci-Quest. The Sci-Quest staff members have held several sessions at the science center, and plans are being developed for a summer camp centered around the concepts taught in the exhibit. As a result of the exhibit, Sci-Quest has been able to recruit other industry partners to design and install hands-on modules and activities at the science center.

Pairs of socks banded together inside a circle

An activity using pairs of socks helps students learn about meiosis. Image Credit: HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology

ChromoSock Kits

The ChromoSock kits, developed at the request of the Alabama State Department of Education and funded in part by NASA, are designed by HudsonAlpha to help students understand how chromosomes behave.

After pilot testing many different materials, HudsonAlpha realized that students seemed to understand chromosomes better when using socks to represent them. Since chromosomes come in pairs -- one inherited from each parent -- and socks came in pairs, their use seemed to make the most sense to students.

HudsonAlpha partnered with a sock manufacturing mill in Alabama to design and knit the socks used in the ChromoSocks kits. HudsonAlpha then worked with local educators to develop the specific activities, text and teacher background pieces educators would need to use the kit in their classrooms. The activities that resulted allow students to model biological processes such as meiosis, mitosis and inheritance interactively. Meiosis in particular is not an intuitive series of steps, and students often develop misconceptions about it. Even textbooks often contain incorrect diagrams and descriptions of meiosis. Providing these kits to educators helps them better educate their students.

In the fall of 2011, the initial modules were designed for middle school students. The Alabama State Department of Education asked HudsonAlpha to create similar kits for high school classrooms. So far, the feedback has been very positive from both teachers and students alike.

BioTrain Internship Program

BioTrain is an eight-week, paid summer internship program for students in high school through graduate school that provides experience ranging from in-depth laboratory research to biotechnology marketing and business strategy. The goals of BioTrain internships are to provide a valuable link between higher-level classwork and real-world experience. Interns gain skills and knowledge that prepare them for working in professional settings and enable them to build relationships with biotechnology companies and/or researchers.

BioTrain internships, provided in part by NASA, begin with a week-long skills development workshop. Throughout the eight-week program, interns participate in weekly professional development sessions. At the conclusion of BioTrain, each intern presents a research poster of his or her activities from the internship experience. The poster presentation is held at HudsonAlpha so that researchers, associate company employees and invited members of the public can attend.

The 2011 Bio-Train summer program included almost 30 interns associated with eight biotechnology companies, five HudsonAlpha researchers, the Genome Sequencing Center and the Educational Outreach team (from HudsonAlpha). The program received more than 300 applications in 2011. The pool of candidates was outstanding, and both associate company leadership and researchers commented on their high caliber.

The high quality of participants and the good working relationships between cooperating companies and BioTrain have contributed to the success of the program. A number of BioTrain participants continued working with a participating company or research lab after the conclusion of the 2011 summer program.

Genetic Technologies for Alabama Classrooms

In 2010, HudsonAlpha developed the Genetic Technologies for Alabama Classrooms, or GTAC, for high school life science educators in Alabama. This two-week immersive experience provides training in both pedagogy and content. The project uses hands-on modules to incorporate genetic concepts into the biology classroom. NASA provided partial financial support for the 2010 program and full support for 2011.

During the academy, educators are given a genetics and biotechnology toolkit that includes hands-on laboratory activities and supporting video clips, animations and other online activities related to genetics. Teachers receive a complimentary one-year membership to the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Alabama Science Teachers Association.

The goal for GTAC is to help educators become comfortable teaching and discussing genetic concepts and terminology with their students, as well as giving educators the tools to discuss the ethical, social and legal issues associated with these concepts. The educator can reinforce concepts through hands-on laboratory modules. All these modules are linked to the state course of study standards for high school life science courses, highlighting biology but also including genetics, forensics, anatomy and physiology, and environmental science. In this way, teachers can build the foundation students need to understand genetics and its bioscience applications. Sustained contact with educators occurs throughout the 12-month period following the academy. This connection helps teachers assimilate the concepts and activities into their plans of instruction.

The academy entered its third summer in 2012, training between 20-25 educators each year. Each class of GTAC graduates teaches approximately 1,600 students annually, meaning nearly 5,000 students will be impacted in the 2012-2013 academic year. Following this trajectory, when the program is 10 years old, it will reach approximately 15,000 Alabama students per year, with a cumulative outreach exceeding 80,000. Additionally, portions of the course are being highlighted at various national conferences for science and biology.

Each academic year, HudsonAlpha tallies the number of students, teachers and members of the public who have used one of the kits or attended a training workshop or a public education session. During the last three years, the institute has seen an increase from 22,000 in 2009 to over 150,000 in 2012. HudsonAlpha remains committed to having a positive impact on science education by promoting collaborations with NASA, Alabama’s State Department of Education, other research and education organizations, and industry.

Related Resources:
› HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology   →
› HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology: Education   →
› Sci-Quest Hands-on Science Center   →
Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services