The High School Brain on Science

Since 2007, medical faculty have been working with Boston teachers to get kids excited about studying health and disease
Berri Jacque at East Boston High School
“We’re not telling them what to do,” says Berri Jacque. “We’re trying to create more critical thinkers and readers.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
December 2, 2013

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Welcome to East Boston High School. Set on a hill in a venerable brick building—it served as the external shot on TV’s Boston Public—the school looks old-fashioned on the outside, but inside science teacher Denise Puopolo is trying something new, and her students are in, well, high spirits.

“Who has marijuana?” Xavier, an extroverted football star, asks with a grin. 

“I haven’t done heroin yet,” someone else protests, savoring the play on words.

No, this is not a high school Narcotics Anonymous meeting. It’s the first day of an educational unit on addictive behaviors, part of an intensive neuroscience curriculum designed by Tufts medical school faculty in collaboration with Boston public high school teachers. The kids work in small groups, considering how substances like marijuana, heroin, nicotine and alcohol affect the brain. The exercise introduces them to the brain’s anatomy as well as the neurotransmitters and circuitry that control it. They’re tossing around phrases such as “dopamine blocker” and “synaptic signaling” like actors in a TV medical drama.

“They are loving the neuro unit,” says Puopolo, an East Boston High alumna who has taught chemistry there for 17 years. “What they like about it is that it relates to them. They want to know all about their own brains,” she says.

That’s music to Berri Jacque’s ears. Jacque, a research assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Developmental, Molecular and Chemical Biology, has a Ph.D. in immunology. But since 2007, he’s been working with Karina Meiri, a professor of developmental, molecular and chemical biology at Tufts, and the Boston teachers to devise this alternative curriculum. Part of the Great Diseases Project, funded by the National Insitutues of Health, the curriculum is designed to expand students’ scientific literacy in the so-called “great diseases”—infectious disease, neurological disorders, metabolic disease and cancer—all topics teenagers are likely to have some experience with.

Denise Puopolo teaches a lesson on infectious diseases using the new curriculum. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe lessons are designed to give students a deeper understanding of scientific principles and practices, such as coming up with research questions and devising appropriate experiments to find the answers. But the program’s main goal is to get kids engaged with science by making it more relevant to their own lives.

“If you ask students if they like science, they may say no because they have this whole image of science and research,” says Jacque. “But if I ask them about infectious diseases, they say, ‘Absolutely. Fantastic.’ They don’t realize it’s the same.”

During the last school year, the infectious diseases course was taught to almost 400 students in 10 different schools—some of them outside Massachusetts. Meiri and Jacque expect to reach another 500 students this year. This fall, almost 200 kids signed up for the elective classes at Boston Latin School and East Boston High School, doubling enrollment over last year. There’s evidence that this real-world approach to teaching science is a successful one. The team assessed teachers' and students' knowledge of and attitude toward science before and after each course. Unsurprisingly, both teachers and students learned a lot from the curriculum. But more important, both groups’ confidence in their ability to master the material, what the researchers call “self-efficacy,” rose dramatically. The results were published in the journal Academic Medicine in May.

Stocking the Pipeline

It’s no secret that American students are falling far behind their international peers in science and math. In 2009, U.S. school kids ranked 25th in math and 17th in science among students from 34 industrialized nations. A 2012 study revealed that just 7 percent of U.S. eighth-graders take advanced math, compared with nearly 50 percent of their peers in Singapore and South Korea.

These aren’t simply embarrassing statistics; they translate to real losses—not just of innovation and discovery, but of economic power. Despite today’s high unemployment, tech-sector employers complain they can’t find qualified candidates to hire. That’s why STEM education—short for science, technology, engineering and math—has become a priority for universities, business leaders and even the White House.

Karina Meiri has been doing her part to get more Boston high school kids into the science pipeline since she arrived at Tufts in 2000. Every summer, she has invited students, often from the Boston Latin School where her own daughters went, to try their hand at research in her lab. But Meiri soon recognized that only a certain kind of student would even seek such an opportunity.

“I realized I was only getting kids who were already interested in science,” she says. “Unless you get teachers involved, you’re not going to have any impact on the rest of the class.”

So in 2009, with money from a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), Meiri and Jacque convened nine scientists from Tufts and 10 science teachers from Boston’s two largest public high schools, Madison Park Technical and Vocational High School and the Boston Latin School. Tackling the infectious diseases curriculum first, the researchers brought the teachers up to speed on the subject matter. Then, working together, the Tufts team and the teachers devised a course that would translate to a high school classroom.

“The key thing was the way we set it up as a partnership between the teachers and us,” says Jacque. “It took a while to establish that bi-directional relationship. We had a lot to learn about the high school classroom.”

Aimee Gauthier is an award-winning biology teacher at Boston Latin School, a public, college-prep high school where students must pass an entrance exam to attend. She was among the first to roll out the infectious disease module in her classroom.

“Piloting it and getting that content has been great. I’ve learned so much along the way. Before I had to research topics myself,” she says. “Having this intensive, professional development in content has been outstanding. It sounds hokey, but this never would have been possible without the collaboration between Tufts and the Boston public schools.”

The Heart of the Matter

Today, Gauthier’s class at Boston Latin is wrapping up the metabolism unit. For their final projects, the students have teamed up to take a closer look at some popular fad diets. Three girls head to the front of the classroom to report on what they’ve learned about Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet, which entails eating nine “specially formulated” cookies a day, plus a reasonably sized dinner.

Liquids poured from cup to cup show students how easily infection can spread from person to person. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe claim is that the cookies contain special proteins that satiate dieters’ hunger and help them stay on the strict diet of 1,000 to 1,200 calories per day. That’s so few calories, the students point out, that the diet actively discourages people from exercising. The girls also note that the cookies plus one meal each day are unlikely to contain a wide enough variety of vitamins and minerals, so a person on this diet would have to take supplements, which, conveniently, Dr. Siegal sells on his website.

“If you were a nutritionist,” Gauthier asks the girls, “would you recommend this diet to your patients?”

The girls all say no. Eating nothing but cookies all day is unrealistic, they say, and they’re bothered by the lack of exercise. But worse, the Internet-savvy teens couldn’t find any primary sources—no peer-reviewed research—to back up the diet’s claims.

For Jacque, who observed the presentation from the back of the classroom, it’s like hitting the jackpot. Another major goal of the Great Diseases Project is to give students the tools to make decisions about their own health based on solid evidence.

Whether the subject is sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse or diet, “we’re not telling them what to do,” says Jacque. “We’re trying to create more critical thinkers and readers.”

Jacque hopes the current interest in STEM education will mean more interest—and funding—for the fledgling curriculum. But like many federal agencies, the National Institutes of Health is slashing budgets, including that of SEPA, which provided the initial grant for the Great Diseases Project. The team recently secured a grant from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease that will support more work with the infectious disease curriculum. Jacque believes the time is right to re-engineer science education, given that the private sector’s interest in STEM has never been higher.

“If we’d started this 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have worked,” he says. “I hope five years from now brings amazing things.”

For more information on the Great Diseases curriculum, visit http://sites.tufts.edu/greatdiseases/.

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.