University of Pittsburgh
July 19, 2006

Local Students, Teachers Join Pitt's 'Gene Team'

$1.27M NIH-funded program engages high school students and instructors in cutting-edge genetics research
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH-What high school student in her right mind would choose to spend the summer with a teacher? Smiling as she looks up from her Petri dish, Alison McKelvey says she's actually enjoying it quite a bit.

It probably helps that during the school year, McKelvey would never have teacher Veronica Mattson for a class. McKelvey is a junior at Hampton High School, while Mattson teaches honors biology to ninth-graders at West Mifflin Area High School. But for eight weeks this summer, they are partners in the University of Pittsburgh's "Gene Team," which pairs students and teachers to do genetics research from Pitt faculty labs.

The program grew out of the issue that many high school science teachers were never formally trained in the detailed topics they're now required to teach. Because of this, they may struggle to develop hands-on methods for science instruction.

In response, Lewis Jacobson, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in Pitt's School of Arts and Sciences, and Alison Slinskey Legg, the department's outreach coordinator, created the Gene Team program, which is funded through a five-year, $1.27 million Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Research Resources.

This year's program participants include three high school teachers and six students. Put into groups of two or three, they perform genetic screens for new mutations using three sets of model organisms: bacteria, yeast, and nematode worms. Their work, with potential applications to health issues like tuberculosis, birth defects, cancer, and tissue degeneration, will provide novel research materials for Pitt research labs.

In addition, the program allows Pitt graduate and advanced undergraduate biology students with an interest in K-12 science education to serve as research consultants to the participants and hone their teaching skills.

The teachers also meet weekly throughout the summer to develop modules for teaching topics using the model organisms. During the school year, they will then implement the modules with their own students using "Pitt Kits" that contain equipment for the experiments.

This summer's program continues through Aug. 11. A log of the Gene Team's experiences, including photos, is available at