Mesa biotech teacher champions hands-on, cutting-edge learning

September 25, 2007

By Flinn Foundation

Students enrolled in the Biotechnology Academy at Mesa High School spend some of their time in the classroom and some of their time in the lab. And some of their time in the chicken coop.

Xan Simonson, coordinator of the biotechnology program for the Mesa Public Schools, believes fervently in the value of integrating hands-on and high-tech learning. Too many high-school students, she contends, have only known science as a dry and intimidating subject. When educators place greater emphasis on inquiry-based and experiential learning, it becomes much easier to cultivate excitement about science and scientific careers.

Simonson’s demonstrated success generating such excitement has yielded her a spate of honors since she was asked to move from the junior-high science classroom to change the way science is taught at Mesa’s high schools. She has secured several collaborative federal, state, and local grants to strengthen science education, in 2005 was selected as the third-place National Biotechnology Teacher-Leader by the Biotechnology Institute, and in 2007 was named the Bioscience Educator of the Year by the Arizona BioIndustry Association.

At the Biotech Academy, students’ classroom learning about genetics and immunology, for example, is complemented by lab experiments with chicken-produced antibodies. Many high-school science programs, even if they had the equipment to conduct DNA analysis, might well dismiss such experiments as prohibitively expensive, given the cost of purchasing the antibodies from a scientific-supplies company.

Academy students circumvent this obstacle by raising their own chickens on the Mesa High campus. Under a veterinarian’s supervision, they inject the chickens with antigens, and presto: a renewable supply of antibodies.

Underlying such an innovation is one of Simonson’s broader beliefs about the education system. “We have to encourage collaboration between our CTE teachers and our academic teachers,” she says.

Doing so, she argues, will allow schools to “break down the silos” that isolate college-preparatory and other rigorous academic courses from career and technical education (CTE) courses. She is convinced that the two educational domains actually have much to offer each other.

The Biotech Academy’s mission and its curriculum design reflect such an approach. Formally, it seeks “to provide students with skills and knowledge to make a seamless transition to a successful post-high school education and/or related position within the bioindustry.”

Implied in such a mission is both academic content mastery and relevant practical employment skills. Indeed, Simonson says, while the curriculum is academically rigorous enough that it has secured dual-enrollment status with Mesa Community College, fully 100 percent of the skills taught in the curriculum can be classified as CTE.

Simonson says that the Biotech Academy targets the vast swath of students “in the middle” who have traditionally received little attention. They aren’t classified as academically gifted or identified as needing special education services and, relative to their standardized-test scores, they often underperform academically. Such students don’t see their studies relevance to their lives, Simonson says, and they’re bored.

In response, Simonson and her fellow teachers have made sure the Biotech Academy is open to students whenever possible; students know that they can arrive at the facility on the north edge of Mesa High’s campus well before the school day begins, can stay after classes end, and will even find interesting projects underway between semesters.

Simonson tries to involve students in the work of science whenever possible, whether or not an activity precisely tracks with pursuit of particular educational standards. For instance, Simonson says, consider the story of the Biotech Academy’s long, sturdy lab tables.

In 2005, Simonson had been at Mesa High for only a year. At the behest of Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Debra Duvall, who believed that students who were unmotivated or at-risk of dropping out would benefit from a small-school environment, Simonson’s team of teachers was in the process of transforming a one-semester biotechnology course into what would become a three-year biotechnology program.

Simonson was sketching out curriculum, working to recruit collaborating teachers and the 15 juniors and 20 seniors who would be part of the initial student cohorts, and building relationships throughout the Arizona bioscience community.

At the same time, she had a hand in the plans for the Biotech Academy’s classroom and laboratory space; designers were remaking a building that had been used by Mesa High’s agriscience program as a welding, machinery, and large animal facility.

A few weeks after the remodeled facility opened, Simonson and her students noticed that each of their new lab tables, tailored expressly for the Academy’s needs, was sagging in the middle. They were the right size for large groups of students to work together on experiments, but they were too long and heavy to support their own weight.

Rather than call back the lab’s construction team, Simonson called in students from Mesa High’s industrial technology program. The students designed, built, and installed supports to keep the lab tables from sagging.

“For some of them,” Simonson says, “that was when they realized science could be fun.” Whenever they entered the facility, the students could now see tangible evidence of their own achievements and aptitude.

Simonson traces such out-of-the-box teaching strategies to the examples of her own high-school science teachers. Her high-school biology teacher, she says, “made science come alive, and he never gave answers—it was inquiry-based education.” Her chemistry teacher sent her to a summer science camp, which advanced her interest in pursuing science after high school.

Already an emergency medical technician at age 18, Simonson attended McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, where she worked in a research lab on campus, and as an autopsy assistant on the weekends. She then trained as a medical investigator, a profession she appreciated for the independence it afforded her and the opportunity it provided to apply scientific processes to solving crimes.

After she earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, Simonson carried her professional background into the junior-high classroom. She often based labs on forensic case studies, which in essence constituted real-world, problem-based inquiry, still the heart of her teaching.

Simonson’s leadership in science education in Arizona, already recognized by statewide science-teaching awards, was propelled further by her participation on the Arizona Science Center’s Bioengineering Collaboration Design Team, funded by a four-year, $4 million grant in 2001 from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

That team developed biotechnology curricula for implementation in the middle-school classroom, which in turn led Simonson and Mesa Public Schools administrators to recognize the district’s deficit in biotechnology education at the high-school level. In response, the district shifted a cadre of junior-high teachers, including Simonson, to the high schools to ramp up high-school level biotechnology coursework.

Simonson says that the preparatory research she and fellow Mesa teachers and administrators undertook when designing the Biotech Academy dramatically confirmed the importance of their new endeavor. In June 2004, a delegation from Mesa attended the Biotechnology Institute’s Teacher-Leader program, and then attended the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s International Convention.

Seeing what other states and even other countries were doing, she says, “we knew we needed to move forward if our kids were to be competitive.”

Making students competitive with their peers nationally and internationally required building enthusiasm among them to go far beyond their schools’ minimum science requirements. “That was my personal passion,” Simonson says. “They were passing the AIMS [Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards] test, but they had low grade-point averages because they were bored.”

Simonson says students enrolled in the Biotech Academy who previously had no interest in pursuing bioscience careers are now recognizing their own potential. “We have kids who would never have taken chemistry. They’re not scared anymore; they’ve found a love of science,” she says.

“We don’t initially emphasize the importance of attending college with our students,” Simonson continues, “but 100 percent of those who graduate are going on to college. They begin earning college credit while in the program, which helps them see” college as a realistic opportunity for them. “Most would have stopped after taking biology, but now they want to take four years” of science.

“Students need to grasp their dream of the ability to attend college and then hold onto it as they gain skills and confidence,” she says. “This drives them to shift their dreams of getting a job out of high school to getting a degree.”

The obvious challenge produced by stimulating greater student interest in science is an exacerbated teacher-shortage crisis. Already, Simonson says, the majority of highly skilled science and math teachers are in the latter stages of their teaching careers; as more of them retire, even fewer teachers will be left to serve what should be an even larger number of students.

Simonson is involved in several initiatives that seek to respond to that challenge. She is finishing a term as president of the Arizona Science Teachers Association, and she serves on Gov. Janet Napolitano’s P-20 Council for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Education, which is charged with strengthening education statewide.

District grants she is implementing include one received in conjunction with Northern Arizona University and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) that is designed to support training for a cohort of 25 teachers earning master’s degrees in molecular science, and a Science Foundation Arizona grant received in conjunction with Arizona State University Polytechnic to introduce teachers to genomic research.

Training teachers to do genomic research will enable successful execution of a third grant, from the National Science Foundation, that Mesa Community College, the Mesa Public Schools, and ASU Polytechnic received to bring genomic research to the classrooms.

Simonson says students are eager to engage in this level of research, but many are not being introduced to it because their teachers lack the background knowledge and research experience to facilitate such learning in the classroom.

As exciting as such grant funded initiatives are for the students and teachers with whom she works, Simonson sees a profound need for broader rethinking of teacher preparation, especially from universities, which she believes need to revamp their approaches to training teachers.

For example, she says, “You have to look at what the universities are doing to encourage people to be math majors and then to go into education.” Missing is a base of educators with confidence in their content areas. At the same time, teachers who are already in the classroom need greater opportunities for professional development. “We just need more opportunities for teachers to grow.”