We aim to infuse molecular biology into the classrooms of small-town Alaska secondary schools. Our long-range goals include the recruitment of students to biomedical and health careers and an increase in biomedical literacy in Alaska communities. The project is a partnership, led by the doctoral campus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and including schools and school districts, from the comparatively urban Fairbanks (30,000) to small towns and villages off the road system. The Fairbanks hospital is a major partner and we will also include village clinics. Our community-based model blends the talents and facilities of local schools and health providers as venues where the secondary school students can pose biological and biomedical questions, answer them using molecular approaches, and thus gain an appreciation of the importance of modern western science to the practice of medicine and to health policy in their daily lives. Our point of departure is several years of experience with NSF-supported apprenticeships which link rural high school students to UAF scientists. We have shown that molecular genetics can be relevant, exciting, and seductive to high school students if it can be applied to their own lives. Our sequence is to start with discovery science, progressively introduce more analytical techniques and allow more questions, and frequently have the students search for relevance of the activities to their lives. In our NSF-funded model, the field is genetics of the immune system in the wild animals that form a major component of the village diet. We use local materials, for example caribou meat, from which students extract DNA, amplify genetic loci, sequence, and evaluate the results. We will add project themes to include microbiology and bring students and their teachers to the university campus for intensive workshops in the summers.
Our specific aims are: first, to expand the approach from individual apprenticeships to engage more individual students and whole classes, in molecular biology research projects, second, to enlist the partnership of teachers in developing approaches that they can be readily transferred to other schools or towns, and third, by making the school-based biology of interest to families and their health providers, to spread appreciation of molecular biology and western reductionist science to the general public. The lasting impacts should include recruiting to biomedical and health careers and helping communities appreciate the scientific and ethical certainties and complexities that must be considered for formulation of public health policy and practice. The immediate aim of this project will be to keep students in high school through graduation because their science courses are focused, challenging and relevant. Simultaneously, we will enrich the learning atmosphere for the teachers and, through parents and local health providers, bridge to the community. The goal is more students in college and health careers, more discussion of the scientific underpinnings of health decisions in the local communities, and better informed local and state health policy.