Guest Post: Harvard at ISB

Guest Post By Alia Qatarneh

Research Assistant, Life Sciences Outreach Program

Harvard University

The realm of research is changing. The understanding of a scientific phenomenon is no longer a journey on a one-way road. It is an active collaboration between many departments, professionals, and experts, resulting in interdisciplinary frameworks that can tackle the vast principles of biology. Systems biology combines those aspects and allows for the exploration of how components of a biological system interact to bring about the complex behavior of that system.

How can science educators open students’ minds to this interdisciplinary approach to science?

Tammy Fay and Alia Qatarneh, of Systems Biology Outreach Program at the Center for Modular Biology at Harvard, attended a systems science education workshop at ISB.

Tammy Fay and Alia Qatarneh, of Systems Biology Outreach Program at the Center for Modular Biology at Harvard, attended a systems science education workshop at ISB.

The Systems Biology Outreach Program at the Center for Modular Biology at Harvard extends this collective idea to high school teachers and their students. The Outreach Program has applied a systems approach to classical biology topics. For example, lecture series and summer workshops focus on a systems approach to biodiversity through bioinformatics for high school teachers. Students can also explore the Human Microbiome with an online module that we’ve developed, as well as attend on-campus laboratory opportunities centered on antibiotic resistance and plasmid technology. However, with more interest in applying systems to everyday high school science curricula, the Outreach Program quickly accepted its invitation to the Summer Systems Science Academy at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Washington.

ISB’s approach to systems science education is unique in two ways. One, the resources that ISB has developed invite students into areas that we had not been exploring. These topical areas include network building, the interplay between the environment and genes, and ocean acidification. The second is the modes through which these topics are communicated, which not only include interactive online tools, but hands-on laboratory experiments. The prospect of participating in such a workshop, gain new systems knowledge, then share with the teachers of the Harvard Outreach Program was electrifying.

“The Outreach Program is always looking for ways to share the resources developed across the centers with our wide network of teachers,” states Tara Bennett, program manager for the Life Sciences and Systems Biology Outreach Program. “This was an exciting opportunity to bring the West Coast innovation out to our East Coast teachers.” Within one month, Tammy Fay, a biology teacher at Masconomet Regional High School, and I were on our way to Seattle, eager to learn what ISB had to offer.

My experience was none other than eye opening. Starting with the keynote address from Nitin Baliga, the question of whether we are preparing our students to take on complex science problems hit my inner educator, as an edge hits a node. He expressed the critical importance of a cross-disciplinary culture of education. He explained the steps he and his team at ISB have taken to create an integrated approach to knowledge. I caught myself thinking of my own high school experience, dreaming of a day biology teachers would cross the hall and work with the physics, math, maybe even computer teachers, resulting in a community where discrete disciplines were something of the past. ISB has taken the much-needed leap to equip current students with the skills of a flexible palate.

Of ISB’s workings, the laboratories and related tutorials that could be readily implemented into the classroom was what I wanted to pack up into my suitcase and take back with me. The first activity that we participated in was the Cell Phone Network activity, which gave participants a tangible understanding of how networks actually work (or did not work). From the beginning, Tammy and I understood the value of this activity, as it demonstrated the complexity of a network that may seem simple from the surface. As caller 3E, I realized this quickly. Separated into groups, we attempted to draw the complete cell phone network on large packing paper. Blue circles in the middle, red lines jumping from one corner of the page to another, orange, yellow, black markings wound around the center of the paper as spaghetti to a fork. Itching to start all over on a new sheet of paper, it hit me: the intricacy, the holes, the data points allowed me to see that this was the big picture. Tammy and I nodded as we agreed this would be the way we start our systems biology workshop at Harvard.

Tammy and I broke down each day’s activities and rebuilt modules to fit the needs of our teachers back east. By the end of the workshop, our laptops, binders, handouts, Post-it notes, and ISB thumb drives held the crucial puzzle pieces of what would become our systems biology workshop.

Alia and Tammy took what they learned at ISB and shared with science teachers in Massachusetts.

Alia and Tammy took what they learned at ISB and shared with science teachers in Massachusetts.

For two days, 16 Massachusetts science teachers attended our abridged version of ISB’s workshop. In addition to the Cell Phone Network activity and simulation, Tammy and I presented the Environmental Influence on Gene Networks module, focusing on the use of Halobacteria. Our teachers enjoyed this module as it can easily lend context for much of the ecology content that is taught. Some even suggested it as a “breath of fresh air” to the old seed design experiment. Not only was the educational value of the module appealing to the group, but the straightforwardness of the laboratory, the detailed organization of each lesson, the outlined learning objectives, and teacher prep documents made for a complete pop-up module package.

Upon completion of the workshop, our teachers were abuzz with excitement over their new knowledge and tools. Their comments sum up the success of this East meets West collaboration.

“I learned how to draw networks and how nodes and edges can mean more than I had previously thought. Networks are far more than ‘just a food web.’”

“This workshop has been one of the best I’ve been to in recent years. It was worthy of my (teacher) time. I’m walking away with resources I can use now, and further, resources that really hit how biology education is changing and moving forward.”

“Systems biology as a context will help my students get the big picture as why biology is important and connects to other important things that affect my students’ lives. As a way of thinking, teaching systems will bring relevance to those students who say they never intend to go into biology further – it will extend their science literacy regardless!”

School started recently and there are teachers and students who have a whole new experience thanks to the willingness of the Institute for Systems Biology to share its resources with our group. This fresh collaboration between ISB and the Outreach Program at Harvard will continue to aid in the creation of a non-linear science education, which to me, is quite extraordinary.

I’d like to thank the Institute for Systems Biology, specifically Claudia Ludwig, for this amazing opportunity. Not only will our students understand the possibilities within systems biology, but I myself have walked away with a greater interdisciplinary consciousness that will influence my future as a scientist and educator.

About the author:

Alia Qatarneh is the Research Assistant for the Life Sciences Outreach Program and the Amgen Biotech Experience Program at Harvard University. Her career focus is combining science and student development. She is a graduate of Northeastern University and has worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts General Hospital, and as a Teaching Assistant for the Honors Program in Biology at Northeastern University.