Teachers delve into carbohydrate chemistry at GlycoNet labs

Michelle Johnsrude (left), a high school science teacher, works with graduate student Christine Tysoe at the University of British Columbia.

By Alexandria Daum

Michelle Johnsrude may be the head of the science department at Highroad Academy in Chilliwack, BC, but she admits she didn’t know much about glycomics when she was first presented with the opportunity to work in the lab of GlycoNet researchers.

“At first, I was like, ‘what does this mean?’” she says. But after a summer placed in the labs of Dr. Stephen Withers and Dr. Harry Brumer at the University of British Columbia, Johnsrude is entering September with some new material on carbohydrate chemistry that she can use in her classroom.

Johnsrude was one of four teachers that had the unique experience of working within the labs of GlycoNet researchers this summer, as part of a joint initiative between GlycoNet and the Centre for Mathematics, Science & Technology Education (CMASTE) at the University of Alberta. The project places teachers within the labs of researchers where they can develop lesson plans and activities with the assistance of those working within the lab.

“It gives teachers a more in-depth perspective of a scientific research world, because science teachers understand science…but few of them have actually spent time in a research lab,” says Dr. Robert Bechtel, Associate Director of CMASTE. “They become better teachers because they understand science even more after the experience.”

Johnsrude describes it as an extremely valuable professional development opportunity, particularly to have such open access to scientists who are at the forefront of their fields.

“I wish that every teacher could have the opportunity to do this, just because you get immersed in real science again. As a teacher you do your degree and then you go off and teach and it’s hard to stay up to date on what’s going on,” says Johnsrude, who was one of two BC teachers placed at UBC, in addition to Albert Chang from David Thompson Secondary School in Vancouver.

In addition to the UBC placements, two Ontario teachers, David Kamatovic and Kristina Salciccioli, were placed in the labs of Dr. Chris Whitfield at the University of Guelph and Dr. Eric Brown at McMaster University.

Kamatovic also described the opportunity as invaluable, particularly in helping provide teachers with the tools to bridge the gap for students between high school and university.

“It’s not often that you get to work with some of the leading scientists and researchers in the areas of biochemistry and microbiology, so that was quite rewarding to interact with them on some curriculum,” he says. “I think more projects like this, where you’re linking secondary teachers with university professors, it helps that transition.”

Beyond the benefits for teachers and students, Bechtel stresses how important this program is for promoting science within the community. The goal is for the program to expand in future years, to two additional sites per year.

“It’s an opportunity for the science that’s happening in local universities to actually be dispersed out through the community,” he says. “It’s a great way of letting the community know the quality and level of science that’s literally happening in their backyard.”

Each teacher developed four lesson plans, which they will use in their classrooms and share at local teacher conferences. The lesson plans will also be made available for free, for anyone to use, on the CMASTE and GlycoNet websites in fall 2015.

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