Vicki Romig, a chemistry and physics teacher at Glenelg High School, is helping produce proteins used in AIDS research. Natalie Meyers, a life sciences teacher at Clarksville Middle School, is studying the way the bacteria that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever enters the bloodstream.
While many of their colleagues are enjoying more leisurely pursuits, six science teachers from Howard County public schools are spending much of their summer on the cutting edge of medical and biomedical research in laboratories at two area universities.
When they return to their classrooms, the teachers will bring with them knowledge of research and techniques at the forefront of science. They'll also bring fresh perspectives on their work.
"You're not stagnating in the classroom," Romig said. "You're able to keep up with what's going on . . . and bring it back to the kids."
That is one of the chief goals of the Science Teacher Enhancement Program (STEP) run by the University of Maryland at Baltimore and University of Maryland Baltimore County. Through the program, teachers from Howard County, Baltimore County and the city of Baltimore will do seven weeks of research for three consecutive summers. The teachers -- 16 in all -- work closely with a professor-mentor involved in a particular research project.
The program, funded by the National Science Foundation, is designed to change the dusty "cookbook approach" to public school laboratory science, said Jordan Warnick, the professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the University of Maryland at Baltimore who founded the STEP program three years ago.
Science education "has gone downhill," partly because many teachers are out of touch with their subjects, basing lessons on textbooks alone, Warnick said, adding, "Ninety-five percent of science teachers do not have practical knowledge of the subjects they teach."
As part of her fellowship, Romig is getting a glimpse of immunology and microbiology at an AIDS laboratory at the university at Baltimore's medical school. Her assignment involves injecting protein into an insect cell membrane, a process that eventually produces a form of pure protein called GP160 that is used in AIDS research. The process is important, Romig said, because the pure protein is so expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for a few drops.
Karen Folk, a science teacher at Herring Run Middle School in Baltimore, is studying the relationship between an irregular form of breathing called "periodic breathing" and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. "In the past, I would just tell them how these things are," she said of her students. "Now I can give them personal, concrete examples."
Warnick said that in previous years he noticed a positive change in teachers returning to the classroom after taking part in STEP. "Their whole outlook and thought processes had changed," he said. "The process of an experiment and how they went about it was more important than actually finishing it."
"Every science teacher should have an experience like this," Romig said. "To know where the information they teach is coming from -- not just a book."