SeaVuria Partners with local Seattle scientist, Brandon Sack, of the Center for Infectious Disease Research
In our quest to put globally relevant projects in front of the eyes and minds of our students, SeaVuria is always looking for partners that are on the front lines in STEM careers. Last year, we were thrilled to meet up with Brandon Sack, a Postdoctoral fellow in the Kappe Lab of the Center for Infectious Disease Research. At the lab, Brandon is charged with using immunology to improve malaria vaccines; with SeaVuria, Brandon was charged with taking our Malaria Project into the schools of Kenya.
The following are excerpts from Brandon’s blog post; read his full story here.
Notes from a Travel Diary: A Postdoc’s Journey to Teaching and Learning in Kenya
This story actually begins with my volunteer work with SeaVuria, where I collaborate with MaryMargaret Welch, Science Program Manager for Seattle Public Schools, to bring cutting-edge, relevant science to the curricula of local schools. Together we’ve developed hands-on, investigative lessons about malaria to demonstrate core scientific principles. The lessons are brought home by connecting each Seattle high school class with a high school in a rural area of Kenya, a country where over half the population is at risk of malaria. All the students learn about malaria simultaneously then connect through Google Hangout calls where the two groups talk and ask each other questions.
When I got to join in these sessions, I was blown away by how quickly the Kenyan students got to the most important questions of malaria vaccine development. This passion and insight made me want to do even more with these students…
So after some negotiations with an incredibly understanding boss, a crash course in teaching with MaryMargaret, 50+ hours of air travel, 35 pounds of worksheets and school supplies, a case of malaria blood slides, and a burner phone to use along the way, I was finally off!
Malaria Symposium: Day One
Each of the 10 surrounding schools had nominated 2-3 of their best science students to come to the Bura School for Girls to attend the two-day malaria symposium, including 6 from the host school.
The plan was to give me time to talk with the teachers and settle in, but the moment I arrived, the teachers put me to work. I was immediately taken to their biology classroom where a projector and rows of eager students awaited me. And so after some technical hurdles, we began two days of intense learning that would give even the brightest students an achy brain.
Teaching can’t be that hard…right?
Being a former British colony, one of the legacies that still remain in Kenya is the style of teaching. Typically, extremely shy and well-behaved students sit in silence during long lectures, occasionally being asked direct questions that they usually answer from rote memorization. This is quite different than the hands-on, creative thinking, hypothesis-driven exploratory lessons we had crafted back in Seattle.
MaryMargaret had told me that bringing this style of teaching to the classroom would be tricky and to push the students outside their comfort zone. So we started with a quick ice breaker where the students asked each other questions about malaria in order to fill out a BINGO card (they hadn’t heard of BINGO, so first I had to explain it). Then we dove into the science.
To guide the topics of our lessons, we always started and ended with group conversations, generally focused on the questions of “What I know about malaria” and then “What I want to know.” We kept track of these on sticky notes at the front of the classroom and revisited them throughout the class to fill in the gaps with “What I learned.” Breaking the students into small discussion groups was a great way to probe their ideas in a way that was comfortable for them.
As we neared the end of Day Two, I asked the kids to revisit their ideas about how the immune system could target the malaria parasite. I wanted them to incorporate what they had learned and think about how they could outsmart the parasite tricks and harness our immune system with a vaccine to overcome the disease—basically, my job. By now they were familiar with the drill of small group discussions. And once again, they gave nothing but diverse and thoughtful answers.
One group even came up with the idea to “make a weakened parasite that stops developing in the liver so the immune system can recognize it and build defenses against it.” I kid you not, this is the foundation of our lab’s work and the exact type of vaccine we are pursuing in phase 2 clinical trials. And this was before I had told them about our vaccine – or any other specific malaria vaccine for that matter! I was so impressed with their critical thinking skills and so excited I wanted to pick up those kids and parade them around on my shoulders like they had just scored a touchdown (ok…maybe a soccer goal would be more appropriate).
Before we wrapped up, I asked the kids to come up with a way to share what they learned with their schools back home. This could be a lecture, pictures, a song, anything. Most chose a song or poem, which I thought was quite different from my experience with American students.
While they were doing this, we were finally able to finagle one of their old microscopes into operation to take a peek at a blood slide with malaria-infected blood cells on it. They came up one at a time, described what they saw in the microscope and then we all discussed which cells were infected with malaria. This is how most malaria cases are diagnosed in the field, and the students really enjoyed playing doctor and were proud of their new skill in being able to diagnose malaria.
Leaving behind the power of scientific discovery
It was great to see the students open up out of their initial shyness and really gain the courage to explore using their own intellect. A few brave souls even got comfortable enough to raise their hands and ask questions at the end. I think the teachers even gained a bit out of seeing their students engage in learning activities outside of their normal style, and it was an incredible feeling to think that I might have helped these students to realize that they possess all the skills to become great scientists and solve real problems. That ability to apply knowledge to solve problems is not only the core of scientific thinking, but it’s a valuable life skill to have.