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Real-life laboratories are rare in American public schools, and that worries Vaughn Cooper.
Twenty years ago, the Pitt School of Medicine professor decided to address this gap with a program for students that promotes scientific experimentation and furthers their understanding of evolution. That dream has since manifested in EvolvingSTEM.
The Pitt-produced, laboratory-based program offers a comprehensive curriculum designed to interest high school students in science by providing hands-on research and learning experiences focused on the concepts of evolution and natural selection. The centerpiece of the program is a weeklong experiment where students analyze bacterial populations.
“They’re selecting bacteria that are best able to make biofilm and produce the slimy matrix that they live in,” said Abigail Mazie Matela, EvolvingSTEM’s director of educational outreach and operations. In the process, students learn basic lab skills such as pipetting.
“An experiment like this makes science tangible and forces us all to grapple with the basics of how life works,” said Cooper. “It's an authentic life science experiment in the classroom that attracts students to the process of doing life science and makes them scientists.”
Cooper initially developed the concept for the program while he was a professor in New Hampshire, but when he brought it to Pittsburgh in 2015 and partnered with Mazie Matela, they simplified and codified the scientific kits used in classrooms and connected with a pioneering educator in Peters Township who was interested in test driving the curriculum. Today, the program serves six Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS).
“We decided to take on the challenge of spreading this program broadly throughout Pittsburgh with a heavy focus on Pittsburgh Public Schools because we felt that was the area where we could move the needle most for communities that could benefit from, I would say, a rare authentic research experience,” said Cooper. And he was right.
In 2019, the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach noted the program's pointed "power to increase student knowledge” and that students “achieved significantly higher average test scores after completing EvolvingSTEM” compared to the standard curriculum.
The program has already reached over 20 high schools and thousands of students across eight states. Though it was initially designed for high school students, 15 colleges and universities have sought out EvolvingSTEM and partnerships with middle schools are underway.
Cooper said students in the program show an increased understanding of evolution, an increased interest in learning science and a stronger ability to identify the relevance of scientific topics to their lives, as well as a greater inclination to pursue STEM careers.
“It started to change how students thought about science,” he said.
Other partnerships have also proven to be pivotal to the success of the program.
Financial support has come from the School of Medicine and the Society for the Study of Evolution. A three-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation grant funded training for teachers to help them become proficient in the curriculum. Last summer, the grant supported eight PPS teachers with $11,000 stipends each as they worked through a professional development program doing authentic research experiments and scaling up the training. Before this, Mazie Matela worked directly with teachers in the classroom, co-instructing.
“That is game-changing for how they plan to teach their students about science when they’re back in the classroom,” she said.
The kits used in the classrooms were originally developed in Cooper’s lab using raw materials sourced from multiple suppliers, including Fisher Scientific, a University-wide contracted supplier for equipment with a longstanding relationship with Pitt that was just renewed for seven more years. Fisher now provides some supplies to help make the kits and labor to help assemble them, which Cooper said has been a made a big difference.
“We recognize a pain point is growth and sustainability of programs started by enterprising faculty like ours because there aren’t sustained logistical supply chains,” he said, noting the average cost per student is $10. It sounds inexpensive, but when schools scale up to provide for entire classrooms or a school district, more resources are required. “So, we are grateful for the current support, and we hope that we can encourage further investment from partners like Fisher to provide those material costs, because that's a huge deal for making a broader rollout possible.”
Because of overwhelming and positive feedback, the team is already looking to the future. Mazie Matela said she hopes the PPS district formally adopts the curriculum so students of all ages can access the kits and the classroom teaching support. For Cooper, he said he’s always dreamed the program could be nationwide.
“I don’t see why any classroom couldn’t learn this way. If we want to create a nation fluent in biotechnology, we have to give them a chance to use and learn from authentic research. And most kids don’t get that chance ever.”
Regardless of the immediate next steps, both agree a certain kind of teacher is required to usher in the next generation of scientists.
“You need a teacher willing to be adventurous,” said Cooper. “There's no substitute. The teacher does not have to be an expert at all, they just have to be bold and try something new and learn. We're asking for two big risks: Are you going to take a chance? And once you've learned that, can you share some of your expertise with your colleagues? That's the key to growth.”
— Kara Henderson and Patrick Monahan, photography by EvolvingSTEM