April 22, 2005

‘Teachers’ Night Out’ educates educators

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Brenda Royal, a science teacher at Hume-Fogg High School who participated in VUMC’s ‘Teachers’ Night Out,’ leads a discussion on digestion in her class.
photo by Dana Johnson

‘Teachers’ Night Out’ educates educators

Deadly infections were on the agenda last month when 20 middle and high school science teachers spent an evening with researchers at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

The event, which featured Drs. Richard D'Aquila, Mark Denison and Kathryn Edwards, was the first “Teachers' Night Out” sponsored by the medical school's Center for Science Outreach.

“It is wonderful to work with highly motivated teachers who want to both learn new material and implement that material,” said Denison, associate professor of Pediatrics and Microbiology & Immunology. “I have three children in middle and high school, and I can think of nothing more important than partnering with teachers to convey accurate and thoughtful information on biology to their students.”

“It was obvious that each of these speakers truly appreciated what K-12 teachers do on a daily basis,” responded Brenda Royal, who teaches biology and anatomy/physiology at Nashville's Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, and who helped organize the event.

“While their topics were 'cutting edge' science, they were presented with humanity and humor,” Royal said. “The topics were relevant to our lives and our students, and teachers emphatically agreed that they would use the materials in their classrooms.”

Professional development for teachers is a major emphasis of the Center for Science Outreach. “We firmly believe that assisting teachers in keeping current with their science knowledge will translate directly back to enhanced student learning,” said the center's director, Virginia L. Shepherd, Ph.D.

Shepherd, professor of Pathology and Medicine and associate professor of Biochemistry, has been organizing conferences and workshops for teachers since 1992. Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the center also sends graduate students in science into area classrooms, and it hosts a variety of summer camps and other programs on campus to expose students to research.

“A lot of what we do is in Davidson County and Middle Tennessee, but we literally go all over the world,” said Shepherd, noting that the center has organized videoconferences between Vanderbilt scientists and classrooms as far away as Japan.

During the seminar, Edwards, a professor of Pediatrics, discussed “the power of vaccines,” while Denison used his expertise in coronaviruses, the kind of organism that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), to detail “approaching emerging infections.”

D'Aquila, who directs the Vanderbilt-Meharry Center for AIDS Research, described drug resistance by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

“I think this type of event is an essential aspect of the CFAR mission, to disseminate HIV research information, as well as Vanderbilt's role in the community to help improve our society's scientific literacy,” he said.

The teachers, who were from Davidson and Williamson counties, peppered the speakers with questions even after the three-hour seminar in Light Hall had ended. Surveyed afterwards, they requested future seminars on everything from cancer to transplantation — “anything that keeps us up to date,” one teacher wrote.

“As long as science continues to spark our interest, and as long as Vanderbilt brings to our community so many bright, articulate minds, please continue to offer those gems to the teachers who bridge the gap between K-12 teaching and graduate students,” Royal requested.

“The programs of Dr. Shepherd, and the enthusiastic support of Dr. (Harry) Jacobson for these initiatives is both encouraging and visionary,” Denison added. “I hope this will perhaps create new opportunities for partnerships to enhance the science education of our future students in all areas of health care and science.”