CityLab Comes South

August 1997. By Nancy Barnes and Scott Lowry.

North Carolina's Partnership for Minority Advancement in the Biomolecular Sciences (PMABS) had a problem. It was 1995, and PMABS was reworking its high school outreach program. The existing approach gave participating high school teachers a strong background in hot topics from cell, molecular, and developmental biology, but did nothing to ensure transfer of this knowledge to their students.

"From the start, our goal was to have an exciting curriculum for the high school students," said PMABS Coordinator Nancy Barnes. "But we had no time to develop our own, so we needed to find a collaborator with an existing approach. I considered some, but their curricula were aimed at a different set of needs than in North Carolina. Then Britt Hammond, a 1991-92 PMABS fellow, introduced us to CityLab, which fit our needs almost perfectly."

PMABS began its mission of attracting underrepresented students into the sciences in 1989. A five-year, $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) allowed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and seven of the state's historically minority universities (HMUs) to form a partnership aimed at providing the curricula, equipment, and faculty development needed to give minority students access to careers in biomolecular sciences. "African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanic citizens now make up 25 percent of our state's population," explains PMABS Director Walter "Skip" Bollenbacher. "And because over 65 percent of our minority students attend HMUs, we realize that these institutions must be at the center of any science education reform."

To help high school teachers better prepare their students for career decisions, three HMUs became CityLab satellites in 1996, implementing summer high school teacher workshops. To get ready to lead these laboratory and seminar sessions, Professors Ron Blackmon and Gary Harmon of Elizabeth City State University, Goldie Byrd of NC Central University, and Michele Barker-Bridgers of UNC Pembroke visited CityLab's facilities in Boston for a week of training with Hammond and Don DeRosa. To help maintain CityLab's high standards in the North Carolina satellites, Hammond developed detailed lists of supplies and instructions for laboratory preparation for use by workshop leaders and participants. A total of 14 teachers then experienced the CityLab mysteries during the two- to three-week workshops. They not only received hands-on training in pedagogy and laboratory techniques, but also took back prelab materials including videos, slides, and models they made using supplies provided by PMABS.

Adopting the CityLab satellite concept inspired PMABS to expand the high school outreach component beyond the teacher training included in the HHMI grant. With supplies left over from the summer workshops, 326 students from eight high schools explored "Mystery of the Crooked Cell," "The Case of the Crown Jewels," and "Entangled in the Web" in HMU biology labs. The program is particularly effective at reaching the underrepresented populations targeted by PMABS; 69 percent of those visiting the HMUs last year were minority students, with about half being African Americans and half Native Americans. Purnell Swett High School teacher Victoria Lowry enthusiastically endorsed the field trips. "I watched the students change their attitudes towards science as they realized its practical applications. They were actually doing the biotechnology current in the news and legal cases."

The high school outreach program continued its expansion in 1997 as two more HMUs--Fayetteville State University and North Carolina A&T State University--offered summer workshops for local high school teachers. Professors Valeria Fleming and Thomas Jordan joined last year's workshop leaders as the number of participating high school teachers rose from 14 to 34. PMABS will also serve more high school students in the 1997-98 academic year at NCCU and UNCP, suppported by a $150,120 grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

"Collaboration with CityLab revitalized the content of our pre-college outreach program," said Bollenbacher. "Their innovative, discovery-oriented curriculum engages students in relevant science experiments that raise their interest in pursuing science careers."


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