In a lab in the U’s Craig H. Nielsen Rehabilitation Hospital, so new that plastic wrap and tape still enclose monitors and equipment cabinets, three or four middle school science teachers group around research assistant and recent MS graduate Bret Mecham, who is wearing a bionic exoskeleton on his arm.
The bionic arm moves up and down. “I’m not controlling this,” Mecham tells the audience, “He is—” indicating a teacher who is holding an electrode on his forearm. As the teacher flexes and relaxes, the electrode picks up electrical signals in his muscle. Those signals translate into mechanical motion by the bionic arm. Such an arm, Mecham says, can restore strength and stability to people who have lost them through disease or injury.
Around the room, other teachers gather around other demos hosted by assistant professor Jacob George, director of the Utah NeuroRobotics Lab, and his students. They’re showing the teachers how U researchers engineer ways for machines and nerves to talk to each other. The teachers are asking questions and taking notes.
These 17 teachers from nine states aren’t here just to gather ideas for their classrooms. Their impact goes far beyond that. They were brought together by the U’s Genetic Science Learning Center (GSLC). In many gatherings like this over many years, the GSLC has co-designed, with teachers, new educational science content. The teachers are helping the GSLC know what students need.
Over the next 12-18 months, the GSLC will produce lessons, videos and activities based on these sessions. When ready, the materials will be available on the GSLC’s website, which logs more than 16 million page views per year from nearly every country. These three days of presentations and discussions at the University Guest House in July 2023 will impact science education for middle school students and others around the world.
“By the end of this,” GSLC director Louisa Stark, H.A. and Edna Benning Presidential Endowed Chair and professor of human genetics, said in welcoming remarks, “we’ll have a wonderful set of ideas from you about what students need to know and how to support their learning.”
About the GSLC
The GSLC is a part of the Department of Human Genetics. Since 1995 the GSLC has been teaching principles of genetics and biology through videos, games and animations. The team includes experienced teachers, writers, artists and animators as well as video and audio producers. The center’s mission is “making science and health easy for everyone to understand.”
They also partner with centers and initiatives, both within the U and externally, to produce educational materials for patients and the broader public on a wide range of scientific topics. Some of their clients include Vice President for Research Erin Rothwell, the Cooperative Centers of Excellence in Hematology, and the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program.
Anyone can browse the GSLC’s materials at learn.genetics. There’s plenty of content about basic genetics, but also about viruses, vaccines, cell biology and ecology. Visitors can fight off a bacterial infection, mutate a gene and breed pigeons for certain traits. The credits pages on these sites acknowledge experts from the U who have volunteered their time to introduce teachers to their research.
The center also develops science curriculum materials for middle school and high school teachers. These materials are available at no cost through teach.genetics. A recently-published curriculum, designed for high school students but also used at the college level, teaches the principles of genetics through a study of genetic disorders. Another recent curriculum, for middle school students, explores how genes and traits change over time.
Both curriculum units include multimedia produced by GSLC, as well as hands-on activities teachers can use in their own classrooms. All GSLC curricula are classroom-tested to ensure that they are effective at teaching science concepts.
“We assess the effectiveness of our materials and programs and publish the findings,” Stark told institute participants.
Much of the GSLC’s funding comes from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences’ Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) grants. The SEPA program funds the development of educational activities to encourage students from all backgrounds to study STEM fields. This year’s Summer Institute is part of a five-year SEPA grant titled “Engineering Solutions for Better Health,” intended to develop curriculum for middle school and high school students about genetic technologies and bioengineering.
Teachers are an integral part of the curriculum design process. Ideas and content begin at Summer Institutes, where teachers develop ideas into learning outlines. GSLC staff, including former teachers, turn those outlines into fully-produced curriculum materials. These materials are then tested in classrooms by GSLC researchers. Sometimes, this testing takes place in the classrooms of the same teachers who attended the Summer Institute, bringing the process full-circle.
Experiencing U research
To help the teachers start generating ideas, the GSLC invited two U researchers to present about their work.
The group first heard from Greg Clark, professor of biomedical engineering and the lead investigator of the University of Utah team using the LUKE prosthetic arm. Electronics in the arm interact with the wearer’s nervous system. Electrical signals recorded from the user’s arm nerves and muscles can control the movement of the arm. The arm can also communicate touch signals back to the user’s arm nerves which relay signals to the brain. A user can pick a grape, using the arm’s touch signals to make sure they don’t squish it.
Clark talked about the design process, which started with listening to what people with amputations needed and wanted in a prosthesis. They wanted to be able to do everyday things like tie their shoes. But they also wanted to connect with their loved ones by holding their spouse’s hand or playing with their child.
“We want them to feel like their body is complete,” Clark said, “not that they’re missing anything.”
Clark talked about the iterative process of engineering. Advances proceed in small increments, he said as designs are tested and refined.
“You can have an idea, but you can’t solve all the ideas in the first version – so you work on solving the biggest problems first. Then you iterate.”
The teachers then toured the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, which opened in 2020. The group toured patient therapy facilities, including smart inpatient rooms that overlook the Salt Lake Valley. They also visited the hospital’s research space, including a “garage” used for developing adaptive recreation technologies. Engineered solutions allow people with spinal cord injuries to ski, sail and hunt.
On the institute’s second day, the teachers heard from Jessica Kramer, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. She studies the properties of mucus and its role in biological systems. Mucus is a complex substance made of proteins and sugars. It may be our largest organ, Kramer said. All of a person’s skin can cover about the same area as a twin bed sheet. But the area of all the mucus surfaces on organs throughout the body would cover an NBA basketball court.
“Everything wet and sticky inside the body is covered in mucus,” Kramer said, adding that humans produce around 10 liters of mucus a day. “We are excreting mucus like crazy.”
Her lab has found some surprising roles for mucus in health and disease. For example, early studies suggested that the SARS-CoV-2 virus might remain infectious on surfaces for up to three days. But those studies assumed the droplets that a person coughs, sneezes or exhales are pure water.
They’re not. They contain salts and some mucus. That mucus, Kramer and her students found, binds and encases viruses as mucus dries. No need, they concluded, to wipe down your groceries.
Kramer’s students Amanda Wood and Ke Wang then set up a demonstration that they take around to K-12 schools: the “snot lab.” They mixed up a basic artificial mucus from gelatin and corn syrup of different viscosities, or thicknesses. Teachers lined up for their turn to test whether the thick or thin mucus traveled further during a “sneeze” (actually a squirt of mucus from a pipette).
Wood, after explaining how to not get “mucus” onto the ceiling (it never comes off, she says), then announced “You are now free to ‘sneeze’ all over the table.”
After the demo, the teachers settled in for the main activity of the institute: co-designing GSLC curriculum. Molly Malone, senior education specialist at the GSLC, outlined the process.
The instructional goal, she said, was to introduce biomedical engineering to middle school students through connections to organ systems and to engineering design.
“Figuring out what’s important and figuring out how to get there simply and early on is really important in curriculum development,” Malone said.
Teachers began by posting sticky notes on the walls, each with a concept inspired by the researchers’ presentations. GSLC staff organized the concepts into themes. Then, working in four small groups, the teachers began to sculpt those themes. They defined overarching ideas and learning objectives that supported those ideas.
With learning objectives defined and refined with peer feedback, the teachers sketched out ideas for student activities. Some included a video or interactive multimedia experience, while others were designed as in-class labs or activities.
At the end of day three, the teachers presented their final ideas. One group had designed, built and re-designed a basic robotic hand from nothing more than paper and masking tape. Another created a lab to measure the viscosity of “mucus” samples. Using a bullseye mat, students could measure how long it takes to spread to a certain radius.
In the coming months, the GSLC teams will continue to develop the teachers’ ideas. One by one, curriculum elements will begin to emerge as videos, animations, lab activities, and teacher guides. After that, the curriculum will go to classrooms for testing before becoming available to anyone on learn.genetics and teach.genetics.
“We’ll now start from the ideas you’ve given us,” Stark told the teachers as the Institute concluded, “and then we’ll get to work!”
Visit the Genetic Science Learning Center’s educational materials here.
Contact the center at email@example.com.