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‘It’s reshaping the way I see teaching’: Wash U program aims to improve science education

Natalia Cantu stimulates the neurons in a cockroach leg at a lab session on July 25, 2018, while fellow program participant Ryan Evans observes.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Natalia Cantu attaches electrodes to a cockroach leg and taps its spiky hairs with a paintbrush.

The neurons in the leg fire rapidly in response, appearing as sharp peaks and valleys on her smartphone.

Cantu, who teaches ninth-grade biology in Edinburg, Texas, is in her second year of Washington University’s Master of Science in Biology for Science Teachers program. As part of the program, high school teachers from across the country do hands-on lab work to improve their own knowledge of science, in the hopes that they can help spark an interest in their students.

Dozens of teachers have earned their Master of Science in Biology for Science Teachers since the program began in 2005. The majority of coursework can be completed online, allowing teachers to earn their degree while working full-time.

Several teachers in the program, including Cantu, work in low-income communities near the U.S.-Mexico border.

“My constant question to most of my students is, ‘What are your plans after high school?’ and they say, ‘I’ll be lucky if I’ll finish high school,’” Cantu said. “I want them to realize that a career in science is something that’s accessible to them.”

Cantu comes from a family of 11 and she said she wants to be a role model for her students and her 5-year-old daughter.

“It was a free education I couldn’t say no to,” she said.

In addition to completing online coursework, the teachers spend two summers in St. Louis. During this time, they work with Wash U biology faculty to develop curricula in neuroscience, ecology and evolution.

For the eight teachers from Texas, the nonprofit Texas Graduate Center and the teachers’ individual school districts cover the cost of the two-year program in full, including travel expenses and a computer.

Maria Nellie Kvapil teaches ninth-grade biology at Mission Collegiate High School in Alton, Texas, less than five miles from the Mexico border.

Although she has more than 30 years of teaching experience, Kvapil said the program has taught her practical ways to improve her curriculum.

“It’s reshaping the way I see teaching and learning, the way I see education,” she said.

By helping high school teachers design more engaging science curricula, the program leaders hope to encourage more students to consider pursuing careers in science.

“The thought is if we can give as much of the latest science to those teachers and they take it back and touch a couple of those students, that’s the goal,” said program coordinator Margo Hathaway.

The next cohort of students will earn their masters in science in May 2019.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.