• Endless Forms: Biotechnology in Action

    This grant proposal and project is a partnership between North Central High School (Spokane) - lead school, Whitworth University (lead college), North East Educational Service District (lead agency), and four rural schools as during the Pilot year (Columbia being one of the four). 


    Purpose and benefit of the project:

    Two of the most challenging barriers with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational needs are effective innovations with STEM pedagogy and access to cutting-edge technology that results in significant gains in student engagement leading to higher interest in STEM careers. This exploratory project is uniquely designed to promote students awareness and confidence in scientific inquiry, expose students to possibilities in STEM careers, and investigate innovative pedagogical interventions that influence students’ success in STEM. The project is based on what we have learned from six years of Institute of Science and Technology (IST) teaching and learning at North Central High School, grants focusing on persistence in secondary and post-secondary education (MJ Murdock Trust - Partners in Science and NSF-S-STEM), and Graham’s Framework of Persistence:

          • Confidence, the belief in one’s ability
          • Motivation, the intent to take action in the pursuit of goals
          • Acquisition of knowledge and skills
          • Professional identification, feeling like a scientist     

    The proposed model is designed to extend the underlying IST pedagogical mission of teaching through  guided inquiry and encouraging persistence (self-efficacy which leads to motivation, acquisition of biotechnology knowledge and skills, and identification as a scientist as opposed to a science student) to rural and urban schools with high enrollments of racial and ethnic minorities, as well as low-income students. The key elements of the project include:

    • Teacher in-service training and support,
    • Curriculum implementation and authentic research over five weeks,
    • Exposure to scientists at various levels of training who look like the student population,
    • A culminating “sequencing boot camp” at IST
    • Significant data collection and analysis to determine the effect of the biotechnology inquiry-based experience has on students’ self-efficacy, motivation, knowledge and skills, and disposition towards a life science career.

    The proposed model includes a combination of pedagogy and technical support that will transform the ability of high schools in the region, both rural and urban, who serve low income and underrepresented populations in STEM. The model is structured to maximize student development through the use of carefully built, sequenced modules focused on student learning outcomes and exposure to current technologies used in the biotechnology and bioinformatics. The model is supported through training high school teachers, at their home site and at the core facility in Spokane, to use the modules in building student confidence in scientific inquiry, data collection and analysis.

    Importantly, our model is structured around support through a core facility, maintained at North Central High School and supported by Whitworth University. The core facility will contain major equipment, such as a high throughput sequencer from Thermo Fisher Scientific (ordered in July 2019 through funding from the Spokane School District and a grant from the Angel Alliance (Spokane, WA)). The sequencer will allow samples from participating sites to be sequenced in a timely and economic manner, leaving the burden of technical support to the core facility and allowing maximum teaching impact to the instructors at each site.

    With a focus on teaching innovative thought through inquiry and encouraging careers in STEM, the proposed model is strongly aligned with five of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Ten Big Ideas: NSF Includes, Future of work at the Human-Technology Frontier, Harnessing the Data Revolution, Understanding the Rules of Life and Converging Growing Research. We aim to impact a significant number of students in underserved populations throughout Eastern Washington by helping them develop biological questions and hypotheses that are relevant to them geographically, through gains in confidence with scientific inquiry, experimental design and opportunities in STEM careers.



    For nearly 30 years, a critical need for a well-prepared STEM workforce has been at odds with a dwindling population of well-prepared workers and an ineffective STEM preparation system in K-12 public schools (Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1991; NRC, 1996, 2011,; NRC, 2012; Reider, Knestis & Malyn –Smith, 2016).  In the biological sciences, this trend is especially worrisome given the rate at which the technology and knowledge base is growing. In an effort to elucidate the rules of life, technological advances have allowed scientists to study genomics, transcriptomic and proteomics with more detail. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, in the next 10 years jobs in the biotechnology fields are projected to be among the fastest growing occupations and the technological literacy required is growing rapidly (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019).  


    Research tells us that increased inquiry and authenticity positively influences students’ information retention (Hum, 2009; Verma, Dickerson & McKinney, 2011), engagement (Ahlfeldt, Mehta, & Sellnow, 2005; Mehalik, Doppelt & Schunn, 2008), attitudes toward learning science (Brownee, et al., 20122; Sharma & Anderson, 2009) and desire to pursue STEM careers (Roberts & Wasserburg, 2009). However, in their article in Science, Graham et al. tell us that less than one-half of the three million students who enter college annually intending to major in a STEM career persist and that exit rate is especially high for women and racial and ethnic minorities, but who collectively make-up 68 percent of college students (Graham et al., 2013). This project builds on what we have learned from 12 years of IST development and lessons learned from a Whitworth NSF-STEM project focusing on underrepresented student persistence.

    Intellectual Merit

    With the increasing need for skilled workers in STEM fields, there needs to be a proactive and transformational increase in innovation and access for all students to get excellent training in STEM education. Previous attempts to offer authentic experiences in biotechnology and bioinformatics  education, focusing on engagement of students in the process and excitement of scientific discovery, has been met with low engagement or insignificant growth in measured outcomes, which is mainly due to inadequate assessment of the growth mindset of STEM career aspirations. Two such attempts are illustrated below:

    • University of Washington researchers launched the BIO-ITEST project in 2009 in order to give students experience with bioinformatics software. The research team designed a bioinformatics curriculum that would expose students to bioinformatics software with elements that would theoretically promote the awareness of STEM careers, self-efficacy, engagement with subject matter and personal relevance.  Over the course of a two-year study, researchers found that self-efficacy in using the software increased, but engagement in the content dropped significantly (Kovarik et al., 2013).
    • Similarly, the Barcoding Life’s Matrix project, was launched in 2010. In this program, students participated in a seven-day residential research immersion that allowed them to apply DNA sequencing techniques in order to identify unknown marine organisms and contribute to a citizen science program. Researchers found that while students and teachers made significant gains in the background knowledge and inquiry assessments (=0.61 and +0.36 respectively), students made insignificant gains in their self-efficacy (-0.06). The authors made no assumptions on the outcomes of this project with regard to students’ overall STEM career trajectory (Santschi et al., 2013).  

    While it is clear that researchers, teachers, and the biotechnology industry are interested in developing STEM programming that encourages biotechnology career trajectory, a successful model has yet to be implemented or fully characterized at the high school level.

    This project will explore the effect that an inquiry-based biotechnology curriculum module has on high school students’ STEM career trajectory as measured by the outcomes outlined in the IREST STEM Workforce Education Helix conceptual model (Rieder, Knestis & Malyn-Smith, 2016). The approach proposed here is unique in that teachers at each site will be trained in the process of inquiry-based research followed by support in developing laboratory modules with investigations specific to their region. In doing so, the PIs aim to transform higher education in STEM by providing teachers with a tool kit appropriate for their context and support through educational and technological resources. Furthermore, by establishing a core facility at the main high school site the network aims to improve success with students by removing the burden of severely limited resources in more rural areas serving underrepresented populations, thereby providing equal access to cutting edge technology to all students.

    This proposal will use innovative approaches to transform high school STEM education by stepping away from traditional curricular strategies and using an innovative tactic that focuses on using curiosity and local, community-based inquiry as a springboard to motivation and persistent interest in STEM. Graham’s research views motivation as a driver for persistence and among the important constructs underlying motivation is self-efficacy or confidence. It is clear from the published literature that confidence in one’s ability is especially important when entering college and taking those first introductory courses in STEM disciplines. We believe that confidence comes not from practicing skills in a “science kit,” but rather from researching questions for which we have no answers, doing authentic research, failing fast and successfully, and experiencing the discovery of the unknown. Our proposed network with a central core facility for support and data generation will allow teachers to help foster curiosity and build skills in asking questions and designing experiments examining questions that are specific to the region in which the students reside.

    Thus, the combination of well-designed modules to train teachers and students with innovative inquiry-based investigations that are aligned with their geographic region, along with rigorous pre- and post-assessment of confidence and learning outcomes, will provide a robust learning framework that gives equitable access to cutting edge technology without burdening schools with the high cost. This will set the stage for a transformative leap in how schools will collaborate into the future to offer training and cultivate interest in STEM fields for a significantly higher number of students, especially those in underserved populations.