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Penn State Hershey offers science outreach program to local high school students and faculty

Classroom setting for SEPA-CREST: Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) - Collaborative Research Experiences for Students and Teachers (CREST)

Michael Chorney, Ph.D. and Gail Matters, PhD, both of Penn State Hershey, lead a lecture on immunology to Susquehanna Township students.

As part of an initiative to educate students in the surrounding areas about research related to health, faculty members from Penn State College of Medicine, in conjunction with colleagues from Penn State Harrisburg, Juniata College, and the Raystown Field Station offered 16 sophomores from Susquehanna Township High School and five of their teachers a week-long, summer opportunity to take a closer look at environmental and medical research techniques, and the interchange between the two areas of science. The formal title of the program is SEPA-CREST, so named for the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) that funded it and the opportunity it provided for Collaborative Research Experiences for Students and Teachers (CREST). It serves not only as a vehicle for students and teachers to gain more intensive experience in science, but also as a research opportunity for college faculty to gauge their ability to improve science literacy with these groups.

Participants travelled to the Raystown Field Station, an environmental center in Huntingdon, PA operated by Juniata College for a multidisciplinary study of the interactions between humans and the environment.

“The great thing about a week-long experience like this is that we’ve been able to address a wide range of topics and techniques,” said Sarah Bronson, Ph.D., associate professor of cellular and molecular physiology, Penn State College of Medicine. “Each of the students are drawn to different areas in science, so this approach raises the likelihood that we’ll score a hit with one of the 16 kids and they think, ‘I want to know more about that’ or ‘I’d like to do that when I grow up.’”

Student Monica Feeley liked the ability to meet professionals in her specific area of interest.

“I’d like to do something in genetics, and there’s not really a chance you can get just to go meet a geneticist who’s a doctor,” she said. “This program allows you to talk to people who you’d never get to meet otherwise.”

When developing the curriculum, biomedical research techniques used by College of Medicine faculty were applied to Juniata faculty’s expertise in environmental studies. Robert Bonneau, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at the College of Medicine and one of the co-directors of the program, explained that the objective of the week was to provide students with an interdisciplinary learning experience by combining these two areas. For example, students ran tests on the water samples they collected for a parasite called giardia, which, left untreated, can profoundly impact the health of community members.

Each morning, students and faculty travelled to areas surrounding the field station to collect samples, record data, and learn about issues related to the environment. The second part of the day took place in the lab, where students heard brief lectures on their experiment’s scientific areas. Activities included electrofishing, gram stains, antibiotic resistance testing, metal analysis, carcinogenesis and macroinvertebrate identification.

Field setting for SEPA-CREST: Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) - Collaborative Research Experiences for Students and Teachers (CREST)

Sarah Bronson, PhD, of Penn State Hershey reviews data collected by two Susquehanna Township students in the Raystown wetland.

Robert McDonald, a biology teacher at Susquehanna Township School District, described the growth that he and the other four teachers in the program noted in their students during the trip.

“The expertise that Dr. Bonneau, Dr. Bronson, Dr. Matters, and Dr. Chorney bring is obviously to the next level – the science that we’ve been doing is very interesting, and it’s good for our kids to get involved with the activities here,” he said.

Student Katie Vellios agreed: “This program lets you get much deeper into topics than you would have in school,” she said. “I like it because it’s given me an idea of what real scientists do: how they perform field work and collect data, instead of just hearing about it from a teacher.”

The program also provided the teachers with their own professional development opportunity.

“I couldn’t be happier with the program, because the teachers and students were able to experience everything together,” said Susan Kegerise, PhD, superintendent of Susquehanna Township School District. “That connection will allow teachers to bring the tools and experiments they learned here back into the classroom during the academic year.”

Funding proposals are underway that would allow programs like this one to continue, both with Susquehanna Township and other area schools.
“Our aim in providing educational outreach with programs like this is to allow students to experience things they wouldn’t have in a classroom setting,” said Bonneau. “Most of these schools don’t have a lake in their backyard or access to technology like this, so this is a cool way they can get a glimpse into what it could be like to work in science.”

Bronson discussed the consistency of this program with the College of Medicine’s mission for educating future biomedical science professionals. “By interacting with groups of students as early as possible, we’re able to pique any interest in science they may already have, and potentially recruit them into the field,” she said.

In addition to Bonneau and Bronson, collaborators on this project were Michael Chorney, Ph.D., Wendy Dunton, Elizabeth Klinger, and Gail Matters, Ph.D. of Penn State College of Medicine; John Lencioni and Judith Witmer, Ph.D. of of Penn State Harrisburg; and Kathy Jones, PhD, Charles Yohn, Ph.D. and Talia Valencia of the Raystown Field Station and Juniata College.

The program was funded by the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), which was granted to Penn State College of Medicine by the National Institutes of Health in addition to awards from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

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