A Perfect Pairing for Teachers and Cal Teach Students

When veteran teachers and Cal Teach students come together for a summer research experience, everyone benefits. That’s the idea behind the Berkeley Engineering Research Experiences for Teachers (BERET) program, which teams them in research laboratories focused on the interdisciplinary field of synthetic biology.

Overseen by Cal Teach Berkeley and the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC), the BERET program calls on the teacher and student pair to spend eight weeks in a lab with a team of faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students. In addition to conducting research, they develop and teach a curriculum unit based on their work.

“Teachers have to be creative and highly motivated, and we want students who have a high degree of confidence and are ready to test their wings as teachers. I look for signs that there’s a huge motivation on both sides to do this. Of course, we’re also matching disciplines,” says Kate Spohr, SynBERC’s education outreach manager who works with Cal Teach program director Elisa Stone to pair the teachers and students in the BERET program.

Kate found all the right elements in Shelley Grant, a Berkeley High School biology teacher, and Kristina Byers, a Cal Teach student with a major in molecular and cell biology. Last summer, the two were placed in a research experience at the Joint Bioenergy Institute (JBEI), a U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Center.

Shelley, who’s not only a classroom teacher but also a UC Berkeley Math for America Fellow and Mills College Teacher Scholar, had a longstanding interest in biotechnology. She says, “One of my goals was to be in a modern biotech lab and learn the most recent techniques. I hadn’t been in a professional lab in about 10 years, and I was sure the technology had moved well along.”

Kristina was similarly motivated to learn about research, and particularly how to apply it in teaching. She says, “As a molecular and cell biology major, you hear a lot about fellow students doing research. I wanted to see what other people were doing. BERET was a blend of teaching and research, so I jumped on it.”

Both Shelley and Kristina also want to work with high school students from groups underrepresented in the sciences. This made them an ideal match for the JBEI placement, where the research team included high potential, low-income high school student interns participating in the Introductory College-Level Experience in Microbiology (iCLEM) program.

“It was a very rich experience with a lot of thoughtful people learning together,” Shelley says.

At JBEI, their project required identifying cellulolytic bacteria and determining the functionality of enzymes within it. Bacteria containing cellulose would be useful to the lab’s efforts to develop new biofuels. The high school students contributed by taking samples and isolating bacteria, using a tree stump on campus as their source.

“I learned how students go about research and how to think about experimental design,” Kristina says. “You don’t want to take away students’ curiosity by molding an experiment too much. You want to help them through the process rather than doing it for them.”

Shelley provided additional insights into effective teaching. Kristina says, “Shelley observed the lesson I taught on PCR, a lab technique to determine whether molecular cloning has gone correctly. I’d never had a master teacher observe and critique my lesson so closely before.”

The two also worked together to develop weekly plans and curricula. Shelley says, “It was a team effort. Kristina hadn’t been a classroom teacher, but she’d worked with students and had a lot of ideas. She had a different approach to teaching while still focusing on the content.”

Kristina adds, “Shelly treated me as an equal. She wanted me to experience what she does every day rather than have me take direction from her. This was the most beneficial way to learn about the teaching profession. It was helpful to plan and schedule an entire week of curriculum because that’s what you do as a teacher.”

By summer’s end, both Kristina and Shelley had achieved their goals for the research experience. Kristina says, “I feel more confident addressing a class, giving direction, and doing all the thing teaching entails. Having research experience also solidifies what I’ve been learning in my molecular and cell biology classes.”

Meanwhile, working in a lab helped Shelley strengthen her science teaching. She explains, “It’s given me technical expertise to share with my students and confidence in my knowledge of modern technology. Now that I’ve refreshed my skills and written a lesson plan, I will do a biotech unit in my class.”

Shelly also plans to incorporate some of Kristina’s ideas. She says, “Kristina planted the seed about including more writing in the science classroom. This can be engaging for students by making them think about science in a different way.”

Though their BERET program experience has ended, both Kristina and Shelley will be back at JBAI. Shelley plans to participate in more summer research, and Kristina will work with a JBAI scientist on another research project: the genetic engineering of yeast and bacteria for the development of biofuels.

“They were a very successful team by all measures,” Kate says.