FOCUS in Sound - Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom

Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom


Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom trained as a neuropharmacologist and has devoted her basic science research to understanding the mechanisms of neuroprotection after neuronal injury.  Along with her accomplishments at the bench, Rochelle has a long-standing interest in science education, and in how to make science education more effective and attractive.  In fact, she now devotes herself to that enterprise exclusively.

As Director of RISE, or Raising Interest in Science Education, she and her colleagues have developed and provided novel science curricular materials to the K-12 and college communities.  In 2007, she established the Duke Center for Science Education, a collaborative effort that coordinates faculty and student interests in curriculum development, research, and outreach activities in science education for the K-16 grades. 

FOCUS In Sound #1: LEAP – Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom Interview

Welcome to FOCUS In Sound, the podcast series from the FOCUS newsletter published by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.  I’m your host, science writer Ernie Hood.

On this edition of FOCUS In Sound, we highlight a very successful science education program for high school students that has received support from the Fund’s Student Science Enrichment Program.  It’s called LEAP, or Launch into Education About Pharmacology.  Based at the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, LEAP targets students at high schools in seven counties surrounding Durham.  LEAP is an intensive three-week summer course followed by an opportunity during the school year for students to design a research project addressing pharmacology concepts, or to develop a presentation on pharmacology issues that are of interest to them.

Our guest today on FOCUS In Sound, Dr. Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom is the director of the LEAP program and professor of pharmacology at Duke.

Rochelle, thanks so much for joining us on FOCUS in Sound…

Thank you for having me.

To start things out, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about the LEAP program itself – it sounds like it’s been a tremendous success…

I like to think so, and I think we even have some data to indicate that it’s been successful.  One of the things that I wanted to do was give students in surrounding areas around Duke the opportunity to engage in a college-level experience.  In fact, pharmacology is actually a medical school-level discipline.  I do teach pharmacology to undergraduates here at Duke—we’re one of the few places in the country that has an undergraduate program in pharmacology.  And over the years, I thought, the kids are so excited about the subject matter, why not bring it to the high school level?  It’s an area that is just inherently interesting to kids—drugs—how they work, what they do to their bodies, etc.  

And so I decided to apply to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund for this Science Enrichment Program to have funding to start LEAP.  And basically I wanted the students to get some of the basics about pharmacology, and then be able to apply those basics in a way that they could research their own questions that they had; topics that were of interest to them.  So the research component of this particular program is all self-generated hypotheses.  The students make up their own ideas for how they want to investigate a research problem, and they do everything that a graduate student might do.  They make their shopping list for what kind of materials they may need.  They write their hypotheses, we discuss it.  And then they come into the lab for, actually, only about five visits before they complete their project, write it up, and present it at the Junior Academy of Science meeting and the science fairs.  So it’s an all-inclusive program.  

How have you recruited kids into the program?

We sent out letters to every high school biology and chemistry teacher in the seven counties.  So it was something like 300 letters we sent out, asking the teachers to nominate up to five kids from their school that they thought would have an interest or potential in science that might really benefit from a program such as this.  And we received applications from the students and the nominations from their teachers.  Each year we received about 100 to 125 applications, and we took 24 students each.  So it’s actually pretty competitive for that group.  

Tell us some of your success stories…

They come in all shapes and sizes, I guess.  The ones that stand out, of course, are the ones where the students have actually won awards at the science fair and at the Junior Academy of Science.  I think we’ve had two $40,000 scholarship winners, we’ve had something like 25 medal winners in the various competitions.  For me, part of that success is not just winning, or placing, or getting a medal, but these kids were competing against other kids who spent six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks in a research lab presenting their projects.  Our students were only in the lab four or five times.  And so, their experiments didn’t always work, but they were involved in planning them, and figuring out what might have gone wrong, and really the bottom line is, learning how to do science.  And science doesn’t always work out the way you want it to.  That’s one of the things we all learn as scientists.  

So I think they had a real lesson.  But they were able to get up there and talk about what they did and talk about what they could do better if they had more time, where they’d like to go with that project if they had more time, and I think those kinds of things really weighed in with the judges, and also, as the person who’s thought about educating these students in this way, that’s where I really see that they’ve learned something.  So that’s one thing that stands out in my mind as a success.  

Rochelle, I know you’ve rigorously documented the results you’ve achieved with LEAP, including your recent publication in the journal Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education – fill us in on some of the data from your evaluations, and some of the conclusions you’ve been able to reach…

We have collected a lot of data.  I can kind of put it into two major categories.  One of the categories is the improvement in their knowledge of basic science concepts.  So we tracked about ten concepts in biology and chemistry, and we assessed their knowledge, the students’ knowledge of these concepts at the very beginning of the course, before they had any kind of work with us, and we assessed them again at the end of the course, and then we assessed them a third time at the end of the year.  So the students were learning things throughout the year by working on their research projects that constituted a different form of learning, not just being in a classroom and taking in the information in a more traditional way.  The other questions that we asked were what we call “self efficacy in science” kinds of questions.  How do they view themselves in terms of their interest in science?  Do they want to take more courses in science?  Would they even consider a career in science?  We get at some things also about their motivation about learning science.  So there are a lot of measures that we had in this particular area.  

In both topics, both categories of assessment, we saw huge gains.  One of the nicest things is that we saw huge gains at the end of the course, the three-week course, but those persisted throughout the year, so when we came up with our follow-up assessment, those gains were still present.  One of the things that stands out in my mind is that some of the knowledge concepts that we had tested, we didn’t actually mention some of these topics in the course itself, yet the follow-up assessment at the end of the year indicated that the students learned that concept even though we didn’t teach it in the class.  They picked it up through doing research work.  And that was music to my ears.  I hadn’t actually thought about that ahead of time.  It wasn’t until I saw the data, where it just stood right out on the page—wow!  This was not something that we actually taught in the class, yet the students picked it up through an alternative way of learning.  That’s the kind of thing that you oftentimes don’t get to see or publish in a paper, but it’s very useful information for us as we plan these kinds of opportunities in the future.  

It sounds like LEAP is really fulfilling its goals quite successfully, and it sounds like thanks to your research the model is being validated as an effective one.  Would you envision LEAP to be a model for similar programs that could be done anywhere?

Absolutely.  In fact, that is one of the ideas that I had originally written in the grant in terms of our dissemination activities, is to use this as a model, to package it as a LEAP toolbox that we could give to other universities all over the country.  We’ll probably start with pharmacology departments in those universities, but it’s certainly applicable to any area in science.  You could just put your own favorite science in place of pharmacology, and do the same thing.  And so our idea is to provide this LEAP toolbox to all of the pharmacology departments in the country, and we’ll have it on our website, and it’s also something that high school teachers can access as well, and maybe partner with universities that are in their own areas.  That has been our plan all along, and we’re working hard on putting the toolbox together.  But it will be one-stop shopping in a sense, that everything will be there in the toolbox to make it successful—everything down to the daily schedules, and how many minutes it takes to do this activity, what kinds of movies are perfect for showing a particular topic that may be discussed that day, ideas for fun things that we’ve incorporated into each of the daily activities.  So we’ve learned a lot over the last three years, and we’ve constantly been refining what we’ve done each year, so that in the end our toolbox will have all the best stuff in it.

Well if I know anything about science teachers, they are just going to eat that up when it comes out.  

Oh, yeah—they love good stuff!

Rochelle, I know much of your work in both developing and studying science education centers on the use of pharmacology, as you’ve been discussing, as a vehicle for science education.  Why pharmacology?

Well, let’s say I’m a little selfish here—I’m a pharmacologist.  I know from many years of being involved in science education that topics that are relevant to students interest them.  If you can interest students in something, you can motivate them.  If you motivate them, they can learn.  So this has been a focus of my research over the last fifteen years, using pharmacology topics to teach students, high school students particularly, basic concepts of biology and chemistry.  Things that they learn anyway in school, but in a way that engages them and captures their interest right from the very beginning.  And when you do that, you have a fighting chance.  And so we’ve had, in some of my other programs, teachers from all over the country.  We’ve had hundreds of teachers involved in some of our programs where we use pharmacology to teach some of these basic concepts in biology and chemistry, and we’ve tested their kids.  We’ve tested close to 40,000 students around the country now over the last ten years.  We’ve gotten some fantastic results.  It works!  The students learn their biology and chemistry better, and hopefully they make good decisions about their daily lives and their health because they have this knowledge.  That’s of course what everyone would like to see in any area of science, is being scientifically literate so that you can make good decisions.

Absolutely…Rochelle, you mentioned teachers a minute ago, and I wanted to ask you a little bit more about that.  What is the role of teacher training in your efforts to improve science education?

Actually the teacher training is a very important part of a lot of the things that we do, and I know that that is also something that is top on everyone’s minds at a national level.  It’s an absolute requirement in terms of engaging the teachers in all kinds of novel approaches to science education.  The teachers want to be part of this.  They are eager to learn as much as they can, and to tackle new topics that they can morph into their own teaching programs.  And so we’ve engaged in a lot of professional development for high school teachers.  We’ve had fantastic feedback from the teachers.  We’ve presented at the National Science Teachers Association meeting every year with some of our professional development workshops, and the teachers just love it.  

Now that’s not sufficient.  To just love the stuff makes the teachers, of course, feel good when they leave there, but if they don’t use it, then of course the benefit isn’t trickling down to the students.  And so that’s one of the reasons why, in a lot of the work that we’ve done, we engage not only with the teachers but then follow them with their students, so that we see that the final impact on the student is related to the teacher’s engagement in this professional development and using the program and the materials in their classrooms.  In addition to that, we engage the teachers to be, in a sense, co-developers with us.  So we don’t just hand the teacher something and say here, do it this way, this will be better.  We want the teachers to be partners with us.  So the teachers in a lot of our programs are actively engaged in developing their own activities in the context of what they’ve learned with us to work with their students.  So they’re helping to actually develop our program.  So it works both ways, and they have something to teach us as well.  And we’ve learned a lot from the teachers.  So I think it’s a really crucial part of the whole science endeavor—you can’t just focus on one side of the population.  

Rochelle, what about you personally?  In the introduction to this, we discussed your background as a bench scientist, as a neuropharmacologist…how and why did you make the transition into science education as a full-time endeavor?

I’ve always been interested in education, ever since I was a kid.  I used to teach sailing when I was high school summers.  Almost twenty years ago, I had an idea to develop an educational film.  It was actually a 3-D animated film explaining how the brain works and how drugs affect the brain.  Because I thought, wouldn’t it be great if students could learn about the brain and how the brain works, in the context of drugs that they hear about, like nicotine and cocaine and marijuana?  It took about nine years to do that film, but it’s on the market now, and I’ve had so many people tell me how helpful it is in their classes.  And by the way, we use the film in all of our programs.  We also give it out as raffles for the teachers when they turn in their evaluations on time.  That was really the start of my interest in a more formal science education focus, and a few years after that I applied for a grant from NIH in science education.  I have a teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, Myra Halpin, who has been my partner in crime all these years with some of our programs.  It kind of started with a visit to her class.  I had a sabbatical, and I thought, OK, I’d like to go actually into a high school and try out some of my ideas.  I contacted Myra and said, would you mind if I came to your chemistry class after you talked, to try out my ideas on your kids?  She said sure.  So just as an example, what we did was after she gave the lectures on oxidation and reduction reactions to her chemistry students, I came in the next week and I said, you know when I was in high school and we learned about oxidation and reduction, we learned all about rust.  But I’m not going to talk about rust.  I’m going to talk about how methamphetamine kills neurons…It’s the same reaction!  And of course the kids were hooked.  They kept asking questions the entire class, they were totally engaged, and they did not get up when the bell rang.  So that’s when Myra and I decided this was going to be a successful venture, to try to do this kind of thing on a much grander scale.  

I did that for several years, and NIH kept asking me to write more grants in science education.  They liked what we were doing, and I said, well, I can’t, I’m running a lab, and one is enough.  And then I thought as time went on, you know, the last third of my career it might be fun to make that switch and do this exclusively.  There aren’t very many people doing this kind of thing that I do, and there are lots and lots of people that are studying the brain.  And so I thought maybe I could put my efforts into science education as a full-time research endeavor as well as development of curricula and professional development.  So, it was not actually a hard decision, because it’s such an exciting field, and one of the things I’ve learned in doing this is that I can see in real time the benefits of what we’re doing in our research.  I didn’t get to see that as a bench scientist.  As a bench scientist you might wait ten, fifteen, twenty years before you see the benefits of what you’re doing, what you’re discovering.  Now I see it as soon as I get the data back, and I see, oh my goodness, these kids are learning so much better than the way they were learning with their standard curriculum.  So that is very gratifying.

Rochelle, much luck for continued success with LEAP and all of your other science education endeavors, and thanks so much for joining us today on FOCUS In Sound…

Thank you very much for having me, I enjoyed it.  

We hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of the FOCUS In Sound podcast, and invite you to subscribe to the RSS feed – doing so will automatically deliver new episodes of FOCUS In Sound directly to your computer.  Until next time, this is Ernie Hood.  Thanks for listening!