The Center for Translational Science Education (CTSE)

A central theme in science outreach is how best to answer the question, “why does this matter?” Dr. Karina Meiri and Dr. Berri Jacque, directors of the Center for Translational Science Education (CTSE) at Tufts University, have been working with teachers and scientists to develop curricula that emphasize how important scientific and health literacy is in our daily lives. They and others at the CTSE have developed the Great Diseases modular curriculum program. This program’s material is divided into four modules (infectious diseases, neurological disorders, metabolic diseases, and cancer) that cover most health issues, and enough course material has been developed to fill an entire academic year. These courses teach students how understanding the science of disease can inform their decisions in the future, empowering them to make healthier choices and to think about health decisions more critically. The CTSE is increasingly focused on how to connect scientists and teachers and how to spread biomedical learning to high schools across the country.

Scientists and teachers have both benefitted from the development of this curriculum, saying:

I feel that I have further improved my teaching abilities. While I have always enjoyed teaching, it was new to cater a talk to people who were not pre-med students or in graduate school. Getting more people engaged during a didactic session has improved my teaching to peers, and even medical residents immensely.

I was originally skeptical, but I was so impressed with how effective it was that I am very eager to use this approach in my biology class.

To learn more, ASBMB interviewed Dr. Jacque. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the main goal of the CTSE?
Our main passion is to bring biomedical sciences into the high school classroom. Teenagers almost always find biomedical science very interesting but rarely learn about it in their classes. Our project capitalizes on that interest, not only to get the students engaged in science but to help them see how studies of disease can inform their decisions and help them lead healthier lives.

Our main program is the Great Diseases project. We use the fundamental research behind these diseases to shed light on how our everyday experiences are impacted by science. We choose material that can explain some experience a student may have had, has broad health implications, has a real scientific question we can use to orient our classes, and can affect how our students make future health decisions. We initially focused our efforts in Boston, but now that the curriculum is built we’ve expanded to other parts of the country. We want to have a more national impact with students and teachers.

As part of this expansion, we’re building online courses for teachers and trying to connect them with scientists. The material in our curriculum is generally unfamiliar to high school teachers, and in order for them to confidently lead their classes we need scientists to work with them to understand it. Of the 230 teachers that we are connected with, who in total reach more than 10,000 students each year, about 30 have been directly supported through video chats with scientists. We’d like to give more teachers this opportunity, but the only people who currently assist our teachers like this are our full-time post-docs. If any scientist wanted to help us with this, it would be a great way to leave a lasting impact in science outreach while investing limited time.

Why is the CTSE’s approach unique?
We do outreach through the prism of research. We study what we do, and we publish our findings in public health and education journals. This helps us to constantly improve our curriculum and our program. We have a paper in Academic Medicine about the Great Diseases curriculum itself and a paper in PLoS One that is focused on our teacher training model. At this point we have surveyed thousands of students about their attitudes before and after taking our courses and, similar to the results we show in our Academic Medicine paper, students have demonstrably improved understanding of the material and more confidence towards learning about health and disease. We have also shown that our students are more aware of health issues and more able to acquire information about healthier choices after learning from our curriculum, and we’re in the process of designing robust metrics to assess if this program affects student behavior.

 

What have been your biggest challenges and how have you overcome them?
One challenge that any outreach group faces is funding and sustainability. We’ve been very fortunate with our funding, and we are principally supported by NIH science education grants through the Science Education Partnership Award. We have additional support from the NSF and from philanthropic donations too. However, most funding opportunities available are built to promote the start of an innovative program rather than to support a successful existing one. Once you get past the initial challenge of trying to create something, there’s an additional challenge in trying to maintain it. We face that challenge on a yearly basis, as do all established groups that do outreach.

Why should scientists and ASBMB members get involved with programs like yours?
From a scientist’s perspective, and particularly for younger scientists, it is so important to be broadly trained. Getting involved in science outreach is a great way to broaden your experience, and I think the best way to have a lasting outreach impact is to work with teachers. They impact so many students over the course of their career that helping them will affect more students than you could ever reach directly. With our expansion of the Great Diseases program we need more volunteers than ever to teach and learn from teachers.

What can scientists and ASBMB members do to help?
The least time-intensive way that any ASBMB member could help is to volunteer to give virtual chats with our teachers. The teachers really appreciate this, as our scientist volunteers help them better understand both our material and how scientists think about problems. We are too understaffed to chat with every teacher who would like this direct assistance. We are setting up a program to train interested scientists over short video chat sessions. This training would only require 2 – 5 hours of time, depending on your volunteer experience. Then we can connect you with teachers to chat with whenever it’s mutually convenient.

We think it would be amazing for one scientist to lead a lab in each classroom during each of our four Great Disease modules. Leading a lab is often hard for teachers while it comes naturally to scientists. Many of our 12 classroom volunteers are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who live in Boston, and we have additional postdoctoral fellows who are implementing our programs in Indiana, San Francisco, New York City, India, and Bulgaria. As we expand we’ll need more and more volunteers across the country.

Finally, we need scientists to help us revisit our curriculum to ensure that we are covering the most relevant health topics we can. For example, the microbiome was not addressed in early iterations of the curriculum, and our scientist experts told us we needed to add it in. We meet a two or three times a year, and 10 - 12 scientists help our seven full-time staff members this way.

Please contact Dr. Berri Jacque [berri.jacque@tufts.edu] if you are interested in volunteering with this program.