Lesson from the field: Why science matters
August 15, 2012 - By Kirk Kennedy, East Duplin High School
What do a chemical company in the Research Triangle Park and a biology classroom in Beulaville in rural Duplin County have in common? That is the question I was asking myself before entering into a two-week externship this summer with BASF.
But after working with the scientists there, it became clear that they -- like my own students -- conducted experiments and recorded observations on a daily basis. Though I always knew that the skills I teach my students are important ones, now I know that they are also relevant with real-world applications.
I was awarded the opportunity to observe at BASF after being selected as a Kenan Fellow through a partnership with tNorth Carolina New Schools and the NC Department of Public Instruction. My work with the fellowship requires me to construct a project-based lesson on genetics, and BASF is a rich environment to study biotechnology in action.
While I observed a great deal of work in the field of genetics, I took away a great deal more that I can share with my students. The first thing I noticed when entering BASF was that science concepts such as gene mapping, cloning, gel electrophoresis, experimental design and many others were actually being used in the "real world." This was the first time I had ever seen "real" science taking place outside of the classroom. Now, I can do more than just tell students about gene mapping, cloning, and recording observations -- I can give them examples of how it is being applied.
One of the biggest questions I get from my students is, "Why do I need to know this?" or "Why is biology important in my life?" Students want to see that what they are learning in the classroom has a direct impact and relevance in their lives. If I can help make this connection, their interest and desire to learn takes a real jump.
Teachers don't often see techniques and concepts that they are teaching applied in the workforce. The externship allowed me to see actual science practices, such as the scientific method, experimental design, and other science techniques taking place outside the classroom. I believe that being able to experience this will allow me to make connections that I have never made before for my students. For example, scientists at BASF keep a lab book where they record their observations and data. These lab books become legal documents that could mean the difference in millions of dollars for the company if a dispute occurred or are simply used to trace how certain genes have been created and tested. In the classroom, I plan on stressing the importance of keeping good records and creating accurate lab reports by making references to what I saw at BASF.
Not only will my students benefit indirectly from the scientists at BASF, they may also be able to interact with these professionals directly. One of the most important resources I acquired during my time at BASF was the network of professional contacts. I feel confident that most of the scientists I worked with would be willing to collaborate with me when I am developing new projects and experiments for my classes. Perhaps even more exciting is the possibility of them skyping with my students. Giving a group of teenagers from rural North Carolina a chance to talk to a scientist who works in the field could help to make their world just a little bit bigger.
But the most lasting lesson for me was an introduction to potential job opportunities available to my students when they graduate from college. I will be able to tell them about jobs they can get with a biology degree other than becoming a doctor. Most of my students' favorite part of biology class is the experiments. If they chose to pursue a job at BASF or in a laboratory elsewhere, they can do experiments everyday for a living.
In a word, that's relevance.