April 26, 2002

Scientific outreach — Shepherd promotes science education through newly created office

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Virginia Shepherd works with Taneisha Green during a recent Kids and Computers session. Shepherd has been a longtime advocate of enhanced science education in schools. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Scientific outreach — Shepherd promotes science education through newly created office

Virginia L. Shepherd, Ph.D., has been named director of Vanderbilt’s recently created Office for Science Outreach in the School of Medicine. The creation of the Office formalizes an ongoing effort to partner Vanderbilt with schools in the immediate area — and beyond — to enhance science education in grades K-12.

“This office and this position are being created not only to recognize Dr. Shepherd’s significant accomplishments in this area,” said Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the School of Medicine, “but also to demonstrate the commitment of the School of Medicine to this program.”

The already extensive programs to be administered through the office are diverse, ranging from placing graduate fellows in classrooms to preparing educational CDs to organizing “meet the scientist” videoconferences to leading summer workshops. The reach of the office is transinstitutional, involving faculty, staff, and students from the Peabody and Arts & Science colleges, as well as the Medical Center.

Shepherd, professor of Pathology and Medicine and associate professor of Biochemistry, has been the bellwether of this effort for years, having received her first science education grant to fund summer workshops for teachers in 1994. Many of the programs that she will administrate as director of the Office were set into motion by her own hand long before she officially donned this new hat.

Shepherd secured funding from the National Science Foundation for a program that partners area middle and high school science teachers with graduate teaching fellows from Vanderbilt and Meharry Medical College. A total of 22 fellows, 23 teachers, and 10 schools have participated in the past two years. The grant also funds seven undergraduate science majors assisting in the design and assembly of science kits for use in classroom instruction.

A site visit by the NSF earlier this year was very positive, reporting that of the 60 or so programs like this in the country, the Meharry-Vanderbilt collaboration is “in the top echelon of that group.” The reviewers noted a “significant positive impact” resulting from the program, noting the “reduced truancy and disruptions, increased excitement, and improved performance and test scores” in participating classrooms, as well as the enhanced professional development experienced by the participating teachers and graduate students.

“It’s just phenomenal to watch the students in the classroom and how they help both the kids and the teachers,” Shepherd said. “I’m pleased to be able to say that someone from the first year of our program is now a physics teacher at Martin Luther King magnet school. Another person is on faculty at TSU.”

The Science and Education Technology Partnership (STEP) is a collaboration between Vanderbilt University, Tennessee State University, and K-12 schools sponsored by an award from the NIH. The STEP grant focuses on using videoconferencing — linking classrooms with experts at Vanderbilt, TSU, or at other sites — to enhance the K-12 science curriculum and teacher professional development. This program has partnered with institutions internationally, including one link-up with Iceland.

The office will be offering a number of different workshops throughout the summer months. The Summer Science Institute is a two-week curriculum workshop for teachers primarily from area middle and high schools. Last summer, in the program’s first year, 33 Nashville teachers participated, as well as five exchange program teachers from the Singapore Ministry of Education. This summer’s workshops will focus on inquiry and standards, Shepherd said, with lesson development integrating technology.

In response to the Tennessee Department of Education’s adoption of rigorous standards in Biology I, Vanderbilt has sponsored Biology Gateway Teacher Institutes for the past two summers.The workshop, conducted by a certified trainer, is designed to instruct Tennessee teachers on the new requirement for all students to pass a biology exam — called the Gateway test — before they can graduate from high school.

The Girls and Science (GAS) Camp, first held in 1999, is a summer program for rising eighth and ninth grade girls. The goals of the GAS Camp are to foster interest in the sciences, to bolster confidence in science achievement, and to encourage enrollment in high school science courses. According to Shepherd, girls from as far away as Montana have participated. A total of 145 girls took part in the four sessions held last summer.

Through the program called Community Scholars, for the past four summers Vanderbilt medical students have collaborated with local teachers to produce educational CDs for use as enrichment tools in classrooms. The program was the brainchild of Dr. Deborah German, senior associate dean for Medical Education, and Barbara Clinton, director of the Center for Health Services. More than 1,000 of the four CDs produced — on immunology, neurobiology, genetics, and developmental biology — have been distributed free of charge to classrooms all over the world.

There is no lack of ideas for new programs to be instituted by the office. For instance, together with Roger Chalkley, Ph.D., senior associate dean of Biomedical Research, Education, and Training, Shepherd is exploring the level of interest of Vanderbilt doctoral students in pursuing a career in K-12 teaching.

“The problem is that you might have a superb scientist,” Chalkley said, “but he or she doesn’t have the necessary teacher certification. We’re thinking of developing a certification program that will speed up their entry into the school system.”

Shepherd has developed a strong relationship with Peabody College of Education where she is now on the faculty as professor of Science Education, the first faculty appointment from the Medical Center within that major discipline. Shepherd hopes to develop a Master’s degree program with Peabody for middle school teachers who do not hold degrees in science-related subjects yet find themselves teaching science.

“The collaborative possibilities between the Medical Center and Peabody are endless,” she said, “and are absolutely required for the success of a lot of what we’re talking about.”

The relationship with the School of Engineering within the College of Arts & Science is also thriving, according to Shepherd. The office is partnering with Dr. Thomas R. Harris, professor and chair of Biomedical Engineering and director of the Engineering Research Center, which has begun to develop a K-12 outreach program.

Chalkley believes the time is ripe for Shepherd’s efforts to be recognized and formally channeled through the creation of the new office.

“President Bush has authorized the NSF to put a goodly chunk of money into improving science and math education — there is over $300 million floating out there for those who are positioned appropriately,” he said. “We are now ideally situated to compete for those types of awards.”