Pitt Event Marked Launch of Federal Outreach Partnership for Middle School Research

Issue Date: 
April 27, 2008

Middle school students most likely won’t be called upon to contain a viral epidemic or figure out why a strain of bacteria causing ear infections across a school district isn’t responding to antibiotics. But more than 120 students from 12 area middle schools got an idea of how to solve these and other microbial mysteries April 21 at Pittsburgh’s Dorseyville Middle School.

The event was organized by the University of Pittsburgh as part of a novel federal educational outreach partnership that will bring medical research and college-level biology into middle schools.

Pitt and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) planned the day to complement National DNA Day on April 25, a day meant to educate students, teachers, and the public about genetics and genomics. But the activities also mark the first joint education outreach event between the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) and Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) federal grant programs, both under the NIH’s National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), said Alison Slinskey Legg, educational outreach director for Pitt’s Department of Biological Sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Legg orchestrated the event with Pitt biological sciences professor Lewis Jacobson.

The NCRR aims to combine the resources of SEPA—which specializes in K-12 education outreach—and CTSA—which promotes the transfer of medical research from the lab to the patient care setting—into a comprehensive outreach partnership. Pittsburgh is an ideal testing ground for the outreach cooperative because the city hosts institutions participating in both programs, Legg said. Pitt, Duquesne University, and the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative, Inc. (PTEI), all support SEPA programs. Furthermore, Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute is one of only 24 (of a planned 60) CTSA-funded programs in the country; Pitt was among the first 12 CTSA institutions, receiving an $83.5 million grant in 2006.

“Our goal is to see how a research university such as Pitt can help educate children in science and biology,” Legg said. “Through cooperation, the university-based outreach programs and the medical centers can link the latest scientific research with the lessons being taught in the classroom.”

The students’ activities included the Outbreak! Program in Pitt’s mobile lab, in which students were presented with the scenario of a potential viral outbreak. The students tried to determine the extent of the infection, the source, and the best method for containment. Researchers from Duquesne and PTEI hosted sessions on tissue regeneration that included hands-on activities. Boston University also contribued its mobile City Lab, a 40-foot state-of-the-art traveling lab designed for students and teachers to participate in hands-on investigations.