Round Lake High partnership brings more science to more students, teachers
Sydney Verastegui didn't think studying DNA structures and conducting experiments in a state-of-the-art lab would be possible as a student at Round Lake High School.
That changed this school year with the opening of the Baxter Center for Science Education's Lake County branch, housed at the high school. It provides students access to free lab equipment and supplies, plus it offers cutting-edge life sciences training for teachers.
The center has made a big difference for students such as Verastegui, a senior who says the lab work allows her to learn the skills she needs as a future veterinarian. After all, her school's $20,000 annual budget for science equipment and supplies stretches only so far.
"I love everything about science," said Verastegui, 18, while experimenting on E. coli plasmids to produce proteins that glow. "It's kind of next-generation-type stuff."
Educators know learning science through doing is a lot more fun and instructive to students than merely reading about it in textbooks.
Yet bringing scientific concepts to life can be challenging for suburban schools that don't have the resources to train teachers on new methods or don't have access to high-tech labs.
The Baxter Center for Science Education, which marks its 10th year helping schools in the Chicago region, expanded this school year into Lake County.
The program is a collaboration among Northwestern University Office of Community Education Partnerships, the Baxter International Foundation, Lindblom Math and Science Academy on Chicago's South Side, and now Round Lake Area Unit District 116. It offers free workshops for middle and high school teachers from northern Illinois and Wisconsin on how to integrate hands-on, inquiry-based science education in their classrooms and to encourage students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Expert teachers, supported by Baxter engineers and scientists, often lead the center's training in the latest biotechnology techniques, including DNA analysis, biology, chemistry and physics, and conduct lab activities aligned with science and engineering practices and learning benchmarks in the Next Generation Science Standards.
Demand for STEM jobs -- including mathematicians, engineers and computer- and manufacturing-related occupations -- is projected to rise, which prompted the center's expansion.
"One of our big goals at the Baxter Center is to promote students entering that STEM and manufacturing education pipeline," said Emily Ferrin, Baxter Center program director and resident scientist. "We know students respond positively and are more richly engaged in learning when they are actively using science practices, such as argumentation and modeling."
Ferrin said the center is targeting school districts with large underrepresented student populations -- blacks and Latinos -- to help them "figure out the best ways to reach those students."
Baxter Center North at Round Lake High will serve as the regional hub for training suburban teachers and augmenting science education for suburban schools.
Students now design lab experiments themselves using the center's equipment and materials, which the largely low-income district could not afford otherwise, said Jen Wells, District 116 teaching and learning coordinator for science and CTE.
"This is the first time they have had this kind of a lab," Wells said. "We really want the skills that are transferrable. Anybody can learn the content, but how do you practice those skills over and over? By having this program in here, we can actually up the rigor of our classes. We can also share (resources) with other high schools in our area."
Students from other schools can use the center's lab equipment and supplies on loan.
Baxter Center also is working to expand its internship program at Round Lake High, helping students apply and prepare for opportunities with local employers by providing resume assistance and interview coaching.
The center is partnering with the College of Lake County in Grayslake to offer mentorship programs, STEM education alliances and dual-credit expansion for District 116 students.
To date, more than 1,800 teachers from throughout Chicago and suburbs have been trained through the center and more than 150,000 students have benefited from the Baxter Box equipment-loaner program, saving schools thousands of dollars in lab costs and supplies.
"We're sort of supplementing what already exists in some of the districts," Ferrin said. "(Teachers) have access to our lending library, lab materials and equipment. We will be running workshops out of Round Lake High School with the idea that ... (trainers) could be traveling to other schools where needed for teachers in that community."
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