Mason, Santa Fe Institute Offer STEM Program for High School Teachers

Posted: June 13, 2011 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: June 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

By Catherine Ferraro

Harold Morowitz, Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy, studies bacteria to find the origins of life. Creative Services photo

Bacteria discovered in the depths of the ocean and the exploration of extraterrestrial environments may provide clues, but the theories surrounding the origins of life on Earth have been debated for decades.

To share knowledge and findings on this topic, Mason joined forces with the Santa Fe Institute to host a two-week professional development program for high school science teachers from around the country.

Twenty-five biology, chemistry, physics and geology teachers will participate in “The Origins of Life: From Geochemistry to the Genetic Code” from June 21 to July 1 on the Fairfax Campus.

This is the third year for the summer program. In the past, the program has been held at the Santa Fe Institute, a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center in New Mexico for multidisciplinary collaborations in the physical, biological, computational and social sciences.

The goal of the program is to introduce high school teachers to new theories and methods of discovering more information about the origins of life so they can take this knowledge back to the classroom and generate more interest among students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

“The program’s past success is another indication that STEM fields are being recognized more and more as essential ingredients of students’ future success,” says Paul Cammer, director of the summer program.

“As STEM areas become an increasingly important part of academic curricula, it is vital that teachers have an opportunity to interact with scientists who are at the forefront of discoveries being made in these areas.”

Michael Summers, professor of physics and astronomy, studies the possibility of life on Mars. Creative Services photo

The program is based on the research of five institutions — Mason; the Santa Fe Institute; Carnegie Institution of Washington, Geophysical Laboratory; the University of Colorado at Boulder; and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — that are collaborating on a National Science Foundation (NSF) project called “From Geochemistry to the Genetic Code.”

The main purpose of this particular NSF project is to examine the geochemical components that may have contributed to the origins of life.

Harold Morowitz, Robinson Professor of Biology and Natural Philosophy at Mason, is one of the principal investigators on the five-year NSF grant that is based at the Santa Fe Institute. Morowitz’s research focuses on examining how the first organic chemicals — the same kind found in livings things — formed and then connected nearly four billion years ago.

As part of the program, Morowitz and his colleague Vijayasarathy Srinivasan, a research professor at Mason’s Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, will give lectures discussing their research that attempts to find the bacteria that most identifies with the origins of life.

According to the researchers, the origins of life may have begun in vents located on the deep ocean floor. Heated to hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit, these vents release hydrogen, carbon dioxide and ammonia into the water.

The goal, the scientists say, is to discover how these compounds came together to form universal elements in the metabolic cycle.

Michael Summers, Mason professor of physics and astronomy, will also present lectures on his research about the possibility of life on Mars.

Teachers will participate in other educational workshops with research scientists, many of whom are from the participating universities, and receive training on topics such as evolution and the genetic code, geochemistry and energy flow, and RNA catalysis.

In addition, teachers will work together on projects depicting the origins of life through computer modeling and discuss the best methods of using this information in the classroom.

“By holding the program at Mason this year, I hope that the university becomes a model of what every research institution should be doing for the benefit of STEM teachers in the surrounding areas,” says Morowitz. “It is important that teachers take the excitement they’ve gained from this program back to the classroom to inspire the next generation of scientists.”





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