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Fred Hutch Program Gives Washington Science Teachers A Chance To Hone Their Lab Skills

Ashley Gross
Blaine Alvarez, a biology teacher from Hazen High School in Renton, has been participating in the Science Education Partnership at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Seattle is well known across the country for cancer treatment and research. For three weeks this summer, 24 secondary school science teachers from across the state are getting to tap into that expertise through a program called the Science Education Partnership at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.  

Blaine Alvarez is one of them. He’s a biology teacher at Hazen High School in Renton, but during this program, he’s been on the receiving end of the teaching.

Wearing a white coat and green rubber gloves, Alvarez used an automatic pipette to carefully add buffer solution to test tubes of T cells. He looked at a sheet of instructions and turned to his mentor, Alicia Morales, for guidance.

“I’m going to ask you a question my kids would ask,” he said. “It’s giving this in the amount of cells we would need. Do I have to do math?”

“For this particular time, you do not need to do math,” Morales said.

Morales is a lab technician at Fred Hutch who’s been researching a possible immunotherapy treatment for kidney cancer. She also takes time away from her regular work to mentor teachers such as Alvarez as part of this program. She has a unique perspective because she started as a participant back when she was a teacher in Bremerton. She said it was an intense learning experience and gave her more empathy for her students struggling to understand something new.

“Those kids who were yawning, or those kids who forgot, or those kids who are feeling overwhelmed and you can see the anxiety on their face, I can better recognize that because I had that same face that summer,” she said with a laugh.

The program continues into the school year. Mentors continue to offer support and serve as sounding boards for teachers, and teachers can check out kits of equipment from Fred Hutch to use with their students to do lab work. Jeanne Ting Chowning, senior director of science education and training at Fred Hutch, said this year they’re focusing more on encouraging teachers to engage in open-ended research questions with their students.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Jeanne Ting Chowning, senior director of science education and training, shows one of the kits of equipment that teachers can check out.

“This opportunity to try things out, to figure things out and to talk about what’s happening is a big emphasis of our program as well,” Chowning said. “We actually have been focusing teachers on the way that scientists talk with each other to figure things out and help them think about how they might use that in their classroom in similar ways to really engage students in that particular process of science.”

Selamawit Bariamichael, who teaches at a small, religiously affiliated school called Seattle Urban Academy, said she’s excited to have access to the scientific equipment, including gel electrophoresis, which is used for separating DNA fragments.

“Being a teacher, you just don’t have a lot of time, or finances or sometimes resources in general, so for them to have thought through everything is a big part of why I was like, `Okay, I can give three weeks,’” she said. “I’m going to learn everything because now I’ll have these amazing kits and hopefully students will just be inspired.”

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Selamawit Bariamichael teaches science at Seattle Urban Academy.

Alvarez said he’s also looking forward to using more sophisticated tools with his students, and he said that after spending time with researchers trying to find better ways to treat cancer, he has a message he wants to convey to his students.

“This is a totally achievable career path for them if that’s something that they’re interested in,” Alvarez said.

More than 500 teachers have participated in the Science Education Partnership since it started in 1991.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.