Students, teachers reach for STARS

By Rachel Skei Donihoo / Holidays 2010

UT Southwestern welcomed the usual throng of students to campus last summer, but none were medical students in the traditional sense.

For two weeks, students and teachers from across North Texas participated in the STARS Science Triathlon, a part of the Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern (STARS) program.

The triathlon, which was first held in 2007, is the result of a pre-college initiative by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

“The purpose of the STARS Science Triathlon is to share the biomedical expertise of
UT Southwestern with high school science educators,” said Dr. Joel Goodman, professor of pharmacology and director of STARS. “This program inspires both teachers and students and is imperative to laying the groundwork so young people will become leaders in a variety of scientific fields.”

There are three components of the program: a 12-day workshop in which teachers hone their skills by demonstrating scientific principles to the students; a series of monthly symposia and in-service programs during the school year where cutting-edge science is presented to participating teachers by UT Southwestern faculty; and an eight-week summer research program, during which teachers and students are matched with
UT Southwestern basic and clinical scientists and undertake a lab project.

Participants typically perform their own research in collaboration with mentors and present their findings to peers and staff at the summer’s end.

“This was a banner year for all of our programs,” said Dr. Stuart Ravnik, assistant dean of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and associate director of the STARS program. “It was our largest group of participants ever, and we were impressed by their enthusiasm and dedication to science education. The participating DISD teachers were intent on increasing science awareness and knowledge in their classrooms, and the impressive young STARS students were focused and excited about learning and sharing that information with their peers.”

Andrew Benagh, a biology teacher at the School for the Talented and Gifted at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, studied lipid metabolism in fruit flies.

“This experience has been a real eye-opener, and I can’t wait to take what I’ve learned back to the classroom,” said Mr. Benagh, who was mentored by Dr. Rob Rawson, associate professor of molecular genetics.

 “This has been a big commitment — 15 months — but it’s been worth every minute. Not only have I formed great friendships with fellow teachers and outstanding researchers; I feel like I’ve been a part of something that will change the way I teach.”

In addition to the training components, the triathlon also funds the development of “Science Suitcases,” which are mobile demonstration modules of scientific principles taught during the Triathlon. The modules include introductions to enzymes, membranes, organelles, evolution and photosynthesis.

Created by students in UT Southwestern’s Graduate Program in Biomedical Communications, in collaboration with staff from the Dallas Museum of Nature & Science, the suitcases incorporate lab equipment, manuals, posters, 3-D models, videos and related website information. UT Southwestern graduate students and postdoctoral fellows use the teaching tools in classroom presentations.

The STARS program was begun in 1991 to improve the quality of science education in North Central Texas. At that time, a partnership was formed to make available to middle and high school teachers some of the educational resources at UT Southwestern. The program has grown to serve more than 5,000 teachers and 30,000 students in 2,000 schools in North Texas.

“Before I experienced STARS, I thought science just meant wearing goggles and doing whatever the teacher tells you, but now I realize science can be whatever you dream up,” said Kristian Garciamendez, a senior at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas.

The student spent his time at UT Southwestern trying to create a high-fat diet for fruit flies that would increase triglyceride levels. Working in the laboratory of Dr. Jon Graff, associate professor of developmental biology, molecular biology and internal medicine, Mr. Garciamendezand his team discovered that palmitic acid wouldn’t work, but coconut oil did.

“I had such a valuable experience here,” he said. “I learned that science and imagination really go together. There’s a lot of freedom in that.”

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Dr. Goodman holds the Jan and Bob Bullock Distinguished Chair for Science Education and the John P. Perkins, Ph.D., Distinguished Professorship for Graduate Education.

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