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Engage Locally, Nationally and Globally: Q&A with Jamie Shuda

Photo by Peter Tobia

Photo by Peter Tobia

For teachers with little to no scientific training, leading science lessons in the classroom can be downright intimidating.
Jamie Shuda—a self-described educator by training and scientist by interest—is making it her goal to demystify science in the classroom for both students and teachers.

As the director of life science outreach at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine and coordinator of life science education at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, Shuda enhances the science education of thousands of students each year. She leads Project BioEYES, a program that teaches basic life science concepts by bringing live zebrafish into classrooms. The program reaches about 17,000 students across the country annually. “It’s about empowering teachers to teach science in a new way,” she explains. “It’s empowering kids to look at science in a discovery, inquiry-based way.”

In addition, Shuda leads the Bridge to ReBIO program, a mentoring initiative that links Penn faculty, graduate and undergraduate students with 25 local high school students to teach them about bench science. The public school students work in Penn labs with their mentors and compete in the citywide Carver Science Fair each year. “At these fairs, students get to see a diversity of science, they get to follow a project from beginning to end, they learn what research really takes. If they do well, they have the opportunity to win scholarship money and summer internships,” Shuda says.

The Current recently sat down with Shuda to talk about helping teachers to become more confident leading science lessons in the classroom, and how these programs can create stronger ties between local students and opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math outside of the classroom.

Q. You’re a teacher by training?
I actually was an elementary school teacher and I taught all subjects. All of my training, even up through my master’s degree, was focused on literacy and math and very little training in science. In fact, I have my master’s in education and I only had to take one science class to get it.
I wanted to be a better science teacher, really, is what it came down to. I felt pretty comfortable teaching everything else. I can see how teachers get roped into traditional ways of teaching science—using a textbook as the end-all, be-all—because we don’t necessarily have the training and we’re not familiar with the latest pedagogy and how to teach science because it, at least in my experience, wasn’t the priority.

Q. What’s the process you go through to demystify science for teachers who haven’t had scientific training?
We offer a variety of programs that teachers are involved in. [In BioEYES], teachers and students do a full week of a research project and the only thing that they need in their classroom is a desk and an outlet. We bring everything. It demystifies the idea that we can’t do good science in classrooms because we don’t have the resources. I think once you instill confidence in teachers to try different areas of science, or just approach the science a little bit differently than just following a recipe, that’s a skill they can use across their curriculum.
It’s also building a relationship. It’s about understanding the best ways to approach science for a third-grader, for a 12th-grader, and really collaborating with teachers. That builds trust and confidence for both parties and that’s why our teachers keep coming back.

Q. How else do you demystify this for teachers?
Our ABCS [Academically Based Community Service] course—the learning and teaching regenerative biology course. I worked with a teacher and co-taught in a high school. Being in that environment, we’re sharing knowledge not only with the 34 high school seniors that we’re reaching every day, but also with that particular teacher. We were talking about where to find good sources in science. In this kind of Google age, we’re so used to finding things quickly, but that doesn’t mean that it’s accurate. I also think it’s pretty interesting that middle school and high school teachers who decide to become science teachers got to choose that. They could have been social studies teachers or language teachers or math teachers. They got into science education because they liked science and teaching. But then as soon as you get your certification, you don’t actually get the opportunity to do science anymore. Where I would like to see our programs here at Penn go is to be more teacher-focused. If there are biology teachers right up the street from us, and we have biology labs, the teachers should be part of our research community. They get to go back to doing things that they really enjoy, cutting-edge things, things that they’re not going to read about for another five years.

Q. That’s such a great point. Their enthusiasm is probably contagious in the classroom.
If we can work in our local community and get more people involved in this STEM community—science, technology, engineering and math—if we can get more students exposed right here, more teachers involved in West Philadelphia, then we’re making a greater impact than just having a broad web cast about what STEM education is. If we’re really doing things that touch people, and we do it consistently and we gain that relationship, then I think we’re making a stronger tie. We’re reaching our goal, which is really to kind of change American science.

Q. What’s the feedback from teachers who have been through the program?
[They say] we level the playing field for our kids. You don’t have to be the best reader in the class to do our programs. English doesn’t have to be your first language. We’ve designed our programs to be for all students, and teachers appreciate that. And students do, too. With that said, though, there are some basic skills that a lot of our students lack that we hopefully help foster in them so that they are competitive to take advantage of the many incredible Penn programs. We’re trying to, in a way, bring our local students up to par so that they can experience a lot of the incredible STEM outreach programs across campus.

Q. When you say that some of the kids are lacking skills, is that a resource issue?
I think it’s an opportunity issue. This is a very foreign thing to many of the students because they haven’t seen scientists in action. They haven’t been to university campuses or labs. They’ve never had the opportunity to do things outside of their own school day or their own neighborhood.

Q. What’s next for your science education programs?
For BioEYES, my immediate goal is to figure out a national replication-type program. We want to keep the momentum going. ...For Bridge to ReBIO, high school students get exposure to this state-of-the-art research institution, I would love to see it grow and reach more Philadelphia students. For the ABCS course, I would like it to potentially work with more teachers, maybe across schools and possibly even in different gade levels.

Originally published on March 3, 2011
Text by Heather A. Davis
Photo by Peter Tobia