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Investing in the Future — Science Education Partnership Awards

By Joyce McDonald

Encouraging people, especially children, to understand and appreciate life sciences requires talent and expertise. The two have come together in a grant program sponsored by the National Center for Research Resources. The Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) program brings together biomedical scientists and a variety of national and community-based organizations and academic institutions to create programs that give teachers, students and the public a better understanding of life sciences.

This grant program, in place since 1991, provides up to 5 years of support for some of the most innovative science-education partnerships in the country. With audiences ranging from preschool to adult, the SEPA programs use various approaches:

  • Biomedical researchers teaming up with K-12 teachers to increase the teachers' science knowledge and teaching skills;

  • A mobile biotechnology laboratory that travels regionally from school to school to instruct teachers and students;

  • "Hands-on" activities at national science museums and centers that teach health subjects such as obesity and nutrition;

  • A state-wide interactive video network that features science lessons for students;

  • Internet and CD-ROM resources designed for children on health and science topics for national distribution; and

  • Students learning about science through on-site lab work with researchers.

No set formula exists for bringing the life sciences to a wider audience under the SEPA program, only the concept of forming partnerships among scientists, educators and professional and community organizations to reach students and the public. NCRR currently funds 58 wide-ranging, health-related projects. Other NIH components — NIDCR, NIA, NINDS and NIEHS — cofund several SEPA projects.

On a field trip to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, high school students in Seattle participate in a SEPA-sponsored program called "Exploring DNA." The students learn to isolate their own DNA and perform experiments to compare chromosomes from cancer cells with normal human cells.

The need for programs like SEPA was supported in recent surveys carried out by the National Science Foundation. The surveys have shown that only 17 percent of adults in the United States consider themselves well informed about science and technology, with only 29 percent in a survey stating that they could provide a definition of DNA.

To address the need for science literacy, SEPA offers specially tailored programs that make information meaningful to a variety of audiences, young and old. One such program involves a pre-college enrichment program with an on-campus summer institute at West Virginia University, called the Health Science and Technology Academy (HSTA). In this program, WVU and 21 West Virginia counties have joined to assist minority and financially disadvantaged students in grades 8-12. The students and their teachers engage in learning activities with the faculty at the university where the students build self-esteem, improve science and mathematical skills in preparation for college, and learn about health-related careers. A recent assessment of the HSTA showed that the program had a strong impact on the academic success of the participants and on their decisions to pursue post-secondary studies and/or health majors.

Another SEPA project involves instruction for minority teachers to increase their awareness of those medical conditions such as diabetes, stroke, and hypertension that disproportionately affect minority Americans so that they can instruct their students on these subjects. Called Project DiSH (diabetes, stroke, hypertension) and sponsored by Howard University College of Medicine, the program will train lead teachers in predominantly minority school systems during intensive summer sessions. Howard staff will develop support materials, including an interactive CD-ROM and a resource notebook of instructional materials that will enable participants to mentor other teachers.

In early 2002, residents in the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan areas will have the chance to view a SEPA project at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. The center will offer a multi-media exhibit that allows visitors to discover and appreciate the wonders of cutting-edge basic and clinical medical research. Called BodyLink: A Health Sciences Update Center, it is a cooperative effort among the Maryland Science Center, the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore. The project also will include an interactive web site to increase accessibility to schools and the public as well as a mentored research component for minority students.

Other SEPA projects are listed on NCRR's web site at More information on SEPA grants can be obtained from Dr. Sidney McNairy, Jr., or Dr. Krishan Arora. Both can be reached at 435-0788.

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