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Frontiers of Science Reach High School Classroom Through Summer Program

Dr. Paul Cooke, veterinary biosciences, conducts research on the physiological effects of steroid hormones, such as plant estrogens. His laboratory, which has generated findings of international interest, may seem an unlikely place for a high school teacher, but that’s just where teacher Shelley Epperson of Mattoon (Ill.) High School spent last summer.

Epperson was one of 20 teachers selected nationally to participate in a program that matches teachers with researcher-mentors in actual laboratories. Throughout June and July she drove 50 miles every day to the Urbana veterinary college, where she was immersed and involved in the daily activities of Dr. Cooke’s lab.

“It was worth every mile,” she says.

When she returned to her classroom in August, her students recognized that she had been really challenged by her summer experiences. “I think it’s good that they see me as a lifelong learner who isn’t afraid to try something new,” says Epperson.
[high school science teacher Shelley Epperson]
Teacher Shelley Epperson spent last summer working in the research lab of Dr. Paul Cooke.

Epperson, who has taught science for 20 years, stumbled into teaching genetics about 8 years ago when another teacher retired. Now a self-described “DNA junkie,” she learned all she can through workshops and reading.

A program in Mattoon called the “Foundation for Academic Excellence” has enabled her to equip her classroom with some high-tech capabilities of a biological research lab, such as doing DNA fingerprinting and conducting polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

One outcome of her time at the College is that she will require all students in her advanced class to read scientific abstracts and to make a class presentation about the research.

“I have many, many students that are very interested in research and biotechnology because of my experience, and they are already asking when and how they can visit a lab or school that would give them more information on how to pursue careers in this area,” she says.

Epperson believes that one of the most important lessons she can take to her classroom is a deeper understanding of the opportunities and benefits of a career in research, and especially how those opportunities are available to women and members of underrepresented ethnic groups.

“If I could just go around here, I’d probably have the whole world,” she says of the diversity she encountered in the College research faculty and students.

The “Frontiers in Physiology” summer research program is organized by the American Physiological Society and sponsored by that and other organizations, including the National Institutes of Health. Epperson and the other teachers selected for the program began discussing issues via the Internet in April. In July all 20 were flown to Washington, D.C., for a weeklong, expense-paid workshop to learn hands-on, inquiry-based teaching methods. This fall they are developing and field testing at least one classroom module. In April 2003 they’ll attend the Experimental Biology Meeting, which draws more than 15,000 scientists worldwide every year.

But the “Frontiers in Physiology” program doesn’t really end then, because its benefits will continue to accrue to these teachers’ students for years to come.

Epperson hopes to begin an ambassador program where high school students can communicate an enthusiasm for science to younger children and open them to the possibility of a science career.

“In their heads, those doors begin to close very early,” she says of younger students. “High school students are valuable role models.”

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