North Central High School students have scratched through Palouse soil looking for clues to celiac disease. They’ve sequenced the DNA of ancient buffalo.
They and the school’s Institute of Science and Technology have been recognized for work that would have been considered beyond the grasp of high school students a few years ago and, in most places, remains unachievable today.
Monday, they were taken to the frontiers of biotechnology by Dr. Leroy Hood, a man who has been expanding those boundaries for decades. A lucky few lunched with him in a North Central laboratory.
The meal and his speech to an auditorium full of rapt would-be scientists were an extraordinary opportunity. Hood, who has spent his career at Caltech and the University of Washington, seldom engages high school students. They responded as if he were a rock star.
For supporters of STEM education – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the student reaction should be welcome validation of their effort to improve the teaching of those subjects at the high school level. The United States is badly deficient in scientific and technical education, a shortcoming that would have been inconceivable a generation ago.
The North Central IST is modeled after the Institute of Systems Biology founded in Seattle by Hood with funding from Bill Gates. Teacher Randy James says Hood’s visit coincided with Monday sequencing, when a first generation of equipment like that developed by Hood was pulling apart the threads of genetic material that holds the secrets to all life.
They talked about the protocols that guide such research, and the teaching and training that enable students to connect with advanced scientific concepts, a discussion James says will continue with other ISB officials.
Hood’s visit also coincided with an event in Washington, D.C. Zillah High School’s Jeff Charbonneau was awarded the National Teacher of the Year prize by President Barack Obama. Charbonneau is a science teacher who has made an exceptional effort to engage his students with study at the high school and collegiate level.
His expectations are high, and the school’s mostly low-income students have met them: The graduation rate is 96 percent.
Hood’s global reputation stems from his work sequencing and synthesizing human genomes. But there’s another kind of sequencing going on when the distinguished scientist shares his vision with high school students, and a James or a Charbonneau shows them the way ahead. The passage of knowledge and inspiration from generation to generation is the essence of education.
Spokane, Zillah and Washington are fortunate to have such able teachers.