Monday, October 27, 2008

Science programs worth cost

[Source: Jeffery Trent: My Turn, The Arizona Republic] - The Translational Genomics Research Institute helps Arizona students pursue a lifetime of science learning

Recently published results from this spring's first science test administered by Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) showed only 38 percent of Arizona high-school students passed.

Without judging the validity or necessity of AIMS or its pilot science program, there is substantial evidence that Arizona's and America's schoolchildren are lagging behind much of the developed world in science instruction

The most recent international comparisons published by the U.S. Department of Education show that American 15-year-olds ranked 29th of 57 nations surveyed in science literacy.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Science doesn't have to be a chore. As science advocates from Carl Sagan, Mr. Wizard (Don Herbert) and Bill Nye, the Science Guy, have shown, science can be fun - even hip.

Organizations such as Yale's Women in Science and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have mentoring programs that show early exposure to the process of discovery can pay lifetime dividends in commitment and knowledge.

To sustain Arizona's growing biotechnology industry, it is important to understand the impact of science in our lives; on decisions with profound implications for issues as varied as climate change, health care and the economy.

Scientific literacy is key to understanding today's technologically advanced world. And providing for the needs of scientifically empowered citizens begins with education.

One way to foster learning and develop a love of science is internship programs, in which experts mentor students who are immersed in scientific inquiry and the creation of new insights.

TGen hosts the Helios Scholars Program, which recently received $6.5 million to fully fund the program for 25 years from the Phoenix-based Helios Education Foundation.

Each summer, 45 Helios Scholars participate in eight-week internships. TGen scientist-mentors actively engage high school, undergraduate and graduate students in research projects, including new ways to treat cancer, diabetes, autism and Alzheimer's disease.

These programs work. Some of TGen's interns include:

• Anne Lee and Albert Shieh, the first Arizona high-school students to win the team competition for the internationally recognized Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology. They developed new software that more accurately analyzes genetic data, resulting in a shared prize of $100,000.
• Shannon Fortin, an Arizona State University graduate in biochemistry, who received a $7,500 Goldwater Scholarship, as well as a Fulbright Scholarship to spend nine months in Belgium researching brain cancer.
• Graduates of TGen's Helios program have gone on to attend some of the most prestigious schools in the nation, including Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown and Stanford, as well as ASU, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.

TGen is not alone in this movement. Other Arizona science education efforts:

• Gov. Janet Napolitano in September announced the establishment of the Arizona STEM Education Center, housed within Science Foundation Arizona in downtown Phoenix. STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) goals follow the Arizona Bioscience Roadmap, which urges "a more informed citizenry in the biosciences and encourage(s) young people to explore and pursue scientific and technical careers."
• Phoenix Union Bioscience High School began in 2007, providing a unique, four-year science education with opportunities for as many as 400 students a year to collaborate with downtown Phoenix's academic and scientific communities.
• The Biotechnology Laboratory for Arizona Students and Teachers (BLAST), established in 2006 at the Tucson Magnet High School, provides instruction at a state-of-the-art-equipped molecular-biology laboratory.
• ASU's School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research (SOLUR) program since 2004 has provided opportunities Valley-wide for students to participate in exciting biological research.

Internships and other educational programs are both time-consuming and costly. But the investment is critical to our recognizing a brighter future for all Arizonans.

Dr. Jeffery Trent is president and scientific director of the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute.

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