Innovations for K-12 Science Education in Seattle

by Leroy E. Hood, M.D., Ph.D
University of Washington, Seattle

The education of our children is one of the most important challenges facing society today. Successfully educating our children is clearly the most effective way to approach some of society's most intractable problems (e.g. crime, drugs, and poverty). The need to improve K-12 education, I believe, constitutes a major opportunity and responsibility for the scientific community.

When I moved to the University of Washington from Caltech four years ago to create a new Department of Molecular Biotechnology, I had two objectives in mind: 1) to create a truly interdisciplinary science environment, and 2) to emphasize that the social contract between science and society had fundamentally changed in the last five to ten years. Scientists must reach out to society and educate them about science. Perhaps the best way to do this is to catalyze better K-12 science, math, and technology education.

Our newly formed department decided to initiate programs at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. In each case the philosophy was to develop programs by closely collaborating with outstanding teachers. At the high school level we are training teachers how to sequence DNA in the classroom. They learn how to read DNA sequences and analyze the resulting information. Their students are now sequencing an unknown gene that causes deafness and, after checking, the data will be submitted to Genbank with the students' names. Together with Medical History and Ethics, we also developed a scenario about Huntington's disease. Through role playing and discussions, students learned to take the ethical and social dilemmas resulting from presymptomatic testing now available to families at risk of Huntington's disease. At the middle school level we pair teachers and scientists together during summer institutes to develop new curricular material which is then field tested in the middle schools.

Clearly our most ambitious program, recently funded by a $4.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation for five years, is to bring 100 hours of hands-on science instruction to each of Seattle's 1,400 elementary teachers. This partnership program includes the University of Washington, the Seattle Public Schools, The Boeing Company, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and numerous Seattle businesses and biotechnology companies. The idea is to bring inquiry-based, hands-on science to students focused around a variety of excellent science kits covering the life sciences, earth sciences, and physical sciences. Our hope is that these science explorations will foster the children's natural curiosity and promote problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Primarily through this elementary systemic initiative, we have come to realize that the key to catalyzing improvements in K-12 science education lies with the four S's.

Strategic: The K-12 education revolution must focus on educating and supporting teachers, but the entire educational community must partner together. Community support is critical. Academic scientists can play a key role in catalyzing change.

Systemic: Entire units of the educational system must be converted (e.g. all elementary schools). This is critical if one is to really change the system.

Sustainable: The programs must be designed to be integrated into and be sustained by the school systems themselves. This is one of the most challenging objectives for the K-12 science revolution.

Sequential: Finally, the conversion process should be sequential. It is important that systemic K-12 change start at the elementary level. Those children and their parents can then form the nucleus for maintaining high expectations for middle school, and finally the high school, programs as they move up the academic ladder.

We hope to make the Seattle Public Schools a model for how these critical changes in K-12 education can be catalyzed.