Advancing Science Education: Speaks with the Institute for Systems Biology

The Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) in Seattle recently won a Golden Apple award for its groundbreaking work in K-12 science education through the Center for Inquiry Science (CIS). We recently caught up with Dana Riley-Black, director of the CIS, to find out more about how the organization is transforming both medicine and science education.

By Megan Driscoll

Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology Please define 'systems biology' for our readers.

Dana Riley-Black: The Institute for Systems Biology is ten years old this year, and we're a not-for-profit center for biomedical research. (I'm getting to the answer, I promise.) Our president is a man named Dr. Leroy Hood. One of his major claims to fame is that he invented the automated gene sequencer, essentially making the human genome project possible.

So think back to how you studied biology, be it in middle school or high school or college. The way that you probably studied it is pretty common, starting with the bigger things and getting smaller and smaller. For example, you might start with the human body, then go to the organs, then to the organelles and so on all the way down to the cell and the parts of cells.

That's how research was traditionally done. But now that we have the ability to sequence genomes, we have the smallest parts. As a result, a new type of biology has emerged, where the big issue is figuring out how to put those pieces back together and make that information useful. And that's systems biology.

This can be done with any kind of life science. You can do systems biology when thinking about plants and agriculture or studying algae for fuel economy or studying the environment and ecosystems. But here at the ISB our main focus has been human health and medicine. We're trying to figure out how we can use these emerging ways of thinking about biology to look at a particular system and the smallest pieces involved and really start to see what happens if you perturbate or activate or take out one small piece of that system. We want to know how it impacts the whole of the system.

In partnership with the biologists at the wet lab or at the bench, the ISB has a huge number of computational biologists. These scientists are building these amazing algorithms to perform predictive-type studies on different types of health issues that we're also able to study in our labs. This partnership between our biologists and computational folks is a completely new way of studying because it requires a different type of collaboration, a different view of the systems. And what has come out of it is really, really cool.

One example is the work we've done on prion disease, also known as mad cow disease. Our scientists, working with the biologists and computational folks, have been able to look at the proteins of a rat who has prion disease. Through biomarkers (which can come from blood, sweat, saliva, etc.), they were able to run tests to predict whether or not the rat had prion disease well before it had clinical symptoms that a doctor could see.

The idea is, as we envision it, that pretty soon just a drop of blood will give us enough information to know all about an individual's disease risks based on their genetics.

So we're not only developing systems science in terms of the relationship between the bench, the biologist and the computational folks. We're also developing technology to allow us to take those predictive algorithms that are partnered with the lab tests and create these really small tools that will be be accessible in a doctor's office or at a pharmacy. This would allow an individual to run his or her own blood tests and receive many, many calculations about his or her health within an instant.

E-P: Would you say that developing this kind of information about disease is the goal of the ISB?

DRB: Yes. The ISB's vision is guided by what our president calls 'P4' medicine. That stands for predictive, preventive, personalized and participatory.

Predictive simply means that we can predict one's health. And once we can predict someone's health, we can establish means for being more preventative, whether this involves lifestyle changes or drug interventions. The regular predictive tests will also allow us to personalize preventative medicine because one's genome is one's genome - it's unique. And finally, the participatory piece is the call to action, that individuals will have to be part of the decision-making process for their health because it's all personalized around them.

When I listen to our scientists talk here about this type of vision for medicine, it's something that I feel could potentially democratize healthcare worldwide.

E-P: The ISB is renowned for the breadth of disciplines that it brings together, including engineering, computer science, math, biology, physics and, of course, education. What is the philosophy behind this multidisciplinary approach, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

DRB: When ISB started ten years ago, the cofounders brought over a number of scientists and engineers and mathematicians and computational scientists, now known as computational biologists. This was necessary because this work really requires a significant level of cross-disciplinary discussion and pursuit - in meetings you hear these men and women in discussions and learning from each other constantly.

But the participatory piece of P4 medicine is one of the main reasons my group, the CIS, is here. When they recruited scientists and engineers, they also recruited some science educators to be part of the ISB. And the group of science educators that are here at ISB now are known as the Center for Inquiry Science.

We're of the ISB, and we function like a lab group. We write all of our own grants and primarily are soft-funded in the same way that a traditional lab group is. Our big difference is we're not doing science at the bench or at the computer terminal, we're partnering with school districts. We're doing that because there's a true belief at ISB that our science is really changing society, and we have an obligation to partner with educational communities to help prepare today's students for those changes.

One way we feel we can do that is to assure that every single student from kindergarten through 12th grade is able to have a high quality science education. And we're not thinking just about systems biology. We're thinking about all the sciences across the curriculum - biology, life science, physical science, etc.

E-P: The ISB recently won a Golden Apple Award for the Center for Inquiry Science. What does the Center offer for local students?

DRB: We don't actually work directly with students. We mainly work with teachers and administrators because the Center is really purposed with helping whole school districts rather than individual teachers who are interested in science.

We work with the whole school system because we believe that science education is an equity issue. Every student needs the opportunity, not just the lucky students in the classes where teachers are interested. So we work with whole school systems to establish comprehensive science education strategic plans.

We help them identify high quality instructional materials, which are usually curricula based on contemporary science and educational research. Then we help them with the adoption of those materials, which often includes finding funds and other resources. The adoptions typically happen by grade bands, such as K-5, middle school or high school, rather than all at once. Finally, we partner with school districts to support the professional growth of teachers and administrators over time so they understand how to best utilize those curricula that are adopted.

During this process, we work with districts to find those teachers who really excel at teaching science. We offer these individuals a number of different leadership training opportunities, enabling them to go back and work with their colleagues to support their own advancements in science education.

E-P: What school districts have you worked with so far?

DRB: We mainly work in the Puget Sound region, which is Seattle and beyond. Last year we worked with 27 school districts, which included about 800 teachers and about 150 professional development days.

To fund our work, we do a lot of grant writing and partnership with school districts. We have grants in partnership with the Everett School District, Bellevue, Highline, Shoreline, Seattle and Renton. But we also develop contracts with school districts so that they can support my staff and work with their school districts across the state of Washington.

E-P: Do you think the model of the Center could be replicated in other states? What might that process look like?

DRB: We've talked about that, but our work really needs to be proximal because it's the relationship that really matters. We develop long term relationships with every single school district we partner with - we keep showing up.

So while we couldn't work outside the state ourselves, I think what we could do is help other research organizations think about how they might serve as real, authentic partners with school districts. What I have found nationally is that research organizations tend to be very interested in bringing their specific science to local school districts or schools. That's fine, it helps build public awareness of science. But I don't think it helps create systemic change or reform in the area of science education. What school districts really need in the area of science is a long-term, committed partner to help move change forward.

This change doesn't just need to happen in a single area of science, but in all sciences, and I think that's how we're different. What we can do nationally is to work with other organizations to help them think this way in their organizations. How do they establish their mission so it includes this type of commitment to education? How do they establish partnerships with school districts? And how do they sustain the program in the organization and in partnership with school districts?

The Center for Inquiry Science and ISB at large function in three areas, that of advocate, partner and resource. I often call on our scientists to help serve as an advocate for an issue that's come up in education so that it becomes the voice of the scientists coming to a school district or to a classroom and saying, this is why we need to move things forward in the area of science. Because it's not just a workforce issue, it's a societal issue. If you're going to be a competent citizen in the future, you're going to need a core base of understanding and critical thinking in science.

So in addition to supporting school districts with resources and professional development, we bring our scientists in as experts to help them understand the nature and process of science and what can and should be depicted in schools.

If we wanted to export our model, we could help other organizations figure out how to establish that approach rather than our going national ourselves.

E-P: Can you share a specific story from one of the Center's programs?

DRB: Sure, I'll start with the Seattle Public Schools. We've been working with them since before the ISB was officially founded, when Dr. Hood was over at the University of Washington. We helped them create their strategic plan and adopt materials at the elementary and middle levels, and we're currently helping them with high school.

At the elementary and middle levels, we've been partnering with them with different types of professional development. At the very beginning, that foundational professional development just helped the teachers understand the new instructional materials. But more recently we've moved into a new type of professional development that brings whole science departments together in two-day collaborative experiences that we call 'observing for evidence of learning.' We've been working with the school district for the past five years on this observing for evidence of learning protocol at the middle level and we've seen these amazing gains in student achievement scores.

The really exciting thing here is the aggregated research data. When we look at the students in schools that have been identified as low SES, or high poverty, we see that this population has made the greatest gains. In fact, they've improved so much that they've closed the achievement gap to the state average, which is unprecedented. This partnership over time has actually helped in closing the achievement gap for science education at that middle level.

A more recent example of our achievements is in the Renton School District, with which we've been partnering for four years. Through a number of different types of grants, we've been able to change their K-12 science education programs. Now they have a new curriculum adopted at the K-5 level, teacher leaders being grown in each of their 13 elementary schools and professional development provided for all teachers.

We especially did a lot of leadership training with their high school teachers, so then the middle school teachers came in and said hey, what about us. They actually came into the central office and said, we want to redo our program. So we helped them write a grant and are now we're in the process of completely revising the middle level for Renton.

This has all happened in four years, and it hasn't gone unnoticed. The superintendent of the district, who was not previously ever involved in science, was asked to become a board member of the new Washington STEM Center, which is a consortium of some pretty high profile corporate funders in the area coming together to fund STEM education. She's also been nominated for a number of different science-related awards as an administrator. That wouldn't have happened a few years ago. But because she's really stepping up, the community is recognizing that commitment on the district level.

E-P: Does the ISB work with college students as well as public schools? If so, what university-level education projects are underway?

DRB: We are certainly colleagues with individuals in the neighboring colleges and schools of education, but we don't provide any courses for the colleges. We also rely heavily on scientists from the different STEM departments on our regional college campuses because we don't have all the science expertise that we need here at the ISB. So we do a lot of work with the universities and finding people in the different departments, such as the physics department or the atmospheric science department, to find scientists that can partner with us when teachers need that type of support.

And we work to train those scientists to work with teachers and administrators. We don't have any true data on this, but lots of anecdotal evidence suggests that these types of partnerships really change these scientists' practice of teaching in their undergraduate level classes. So that's our higher ed connection.

E-P: Interdisciplinary approaches are becoming more common in academia as well as research. In what ways does the ISB promote this way of thinking?

DRB: I think any scientist or engineer who comes and works with us recognizes that the ISB has an interdisciplinary approach, but I don't know if it influences them or their work at the university. I do know that when teachers come to the ISB for some type of professional development experience - particularly if we get them out on the floor and having conversations with our scientists - they really recognize the interdisciplinary nature of science today.

And they see that it's not just about biology and mathematics or biology and physics or biology and computer science. It's also about how other content disciplines are woven into the sciences, like writing and reading. I just love those 'aha' moments, when teachers listen to a scientist go on and on about needing writing skills or something, and say wow, I didn't recognize that they needed to write so much. I didn't realize they had to spend so much time reading. Or, you sure have to understand statistics to do that sort of work.

So it's not just the science disciplines that are multidisciplinary. I think teachers come away understanding that this work is multidisciplinary across all academics.

E-P: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about the ISB and the Center for Inquiry Science.

DRB: I've had the opportunity to work with a number of organizations, both in Washington State and across the U.S., and I think there's a number of really sincere efforts to impact K-12 science education. But it's been here at the ISB where I felt that the intent to have partnerships with school districts and advancing science education truly is an authentic intent. There's an effort across the organization to support this work, and I would love to, like we were talking about earlier, think about how to support or inform other research organizations or inform research organizations in creating these leadership roles and community partnerships to advance science education.

This is important because it's just not going to be catalyzed from within a school district. Because science is not measured as part of AYP (academic yearly progress), the staffing to support science is not nearly as robust in a school district as it might be in other content areas. So one thing that we work hard to do across the Puget Sound region is create job alike networks for the science staff in the different school districts. We bring together administrators who are thinking about science and have them work across the school districts so that they have someone to talk to about science. We also do the same thing for science coaches, which are teachers on special assignment, because they're just really on their own.

I also wanted to make sure that your readers known that all of our work is evaluated by an external evaluator. And we're working on setting up every one of our programs to be a research project so that we can very formally test our work. Also, when we do have successes, we want to be able to publish about our work so that it can be disseminated more broadly.

When we first started, our work was considered a good idea and something that needed to be done. But now that we're finding that this good idea is really working, we want to make sure that there's rigor around it and that we are able to disseminate what we're learning.

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