Oct. 28, 2003 DURHAM, N.C. -- By developing lessons about cocaine, amphetamines, drug testing and, nerve gas, a pharmacology professor and a chemistry teacher have discovered that they can grab the attention of high school students to more effectively teach them biology and chemistry.
In fact, in a nationwide test of their approach, the teachers found that students using these lessons scored far higher gains in their understanding of biology and chemistry than is common in even the most successful curriculum experiments.
The developers of the new curriculum -- called the Pharmacology Education Partnership (PEP) -- are Rochelle Schwartz-Bloom, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at Duke University Medical Center, and Myra Halpin, a chemistry teacher at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.
They published the results of a comparative analysis of their approach with the usual teaching methods in an article in the November 2003 "Journal of Research in Science Teaching." Development of the PEP curriculum was supported by the science education program at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.
"We believe that our findings show dramatically that science instruction using a context inherently interesting to students -- such as how drugs affect their body -- can constitute a much more effective way to teach science," said Schwartz-Bloom. "We hope that these findings will not only encourage broader adoption of our curriculum modules, but will inspire educators to think about ways to make science more relevant to students in developing their coursework."
Said Halpin, "One thing that has not changed in my more than 30 years of teaching is that the hardest part of teaching is getting and keeping students' attention. I find that teaching chemistry in the context of relevant topics, such as nerve gas and drugs, motivates students to learn. Not just learn for the test, but to understand the concepts and how those concepts apply to their bodies."
In the PEP project, which began six years ago, Schwartz-Bloom and Halpin first developed four curriculum modules to teach high school biology and chemistry in the context of pharmacological topics. The modules have such evocative names as "Acids, bases and cocaine addicts," "Drug testing: a hair-brained idea!" "How do drugs damage neurons? It's radical!" and "Military pharmacology: It takes nerves." Each of the modules included learning objectives, student handouts, a teacher guide, a glossary, supplemental student activities and a resource list.
To determine how effective the modules would be with students, Schwartz-Bloom and Halpin recruited 50 biology and chemistry teachers from throughout the U.S. to train in using the modules. In the first year of training, half of this group took a weeklong training course at Duke one summer; and half became a "wait-listed" control group, whose training was delayed a year. At the end of the following school year, Schwartz-Bloom and Halpin asked both sets of teachers to give their students a standardized test of knowledge of biology and chemistry.
Said Schwartz-Bloom, "So, the key to the study was that we tested the students of all 50 teachers the first year -- the 25 teachers who got the materials and the training, plus the 25 teachers who were just the wait-listed control group. They taught the way they normally teach."
Furthermore, during the second year, the control-group teachers went through the training, and their new students were subsequently tested -- yielding a comparison of the same teachers' effectiveness before and after training on the modules. Overall, more than 4,000 students were tested in the study.
"We got a great 'dose-response effect,' which is what we always look for as pharmacologists," said Schwartz-Bloom of their findings. "The more modules the students used, the better they performed in biology and chemistry. And the biggest surprise for me was, when I looked at the educational research literature, we outscored all the other programs, in terms of the magnitude of changes. We were far above the level of what is considered an excellent result, in terms of the effect of our program."
"We believe these results are particularly significant because the teachers used these modules under real-world conditions, and we used a very rigorous experimental design and statistical analysis to determine their effectiveness," said Schwartz-Bloom. "Thus, we are confident that this approach does yield significant advantages over the usual methods of teaching biology and chemistry to high school students."
Since the initial study, Schwartz-Bloom and Halpin have continued the project, adding two more modules: "Why do plants make drugs for humans?" and "Steroids and athletes: Genes work overtime." They are also exploring the effects of more concentrated workshops at science teachers' association meetings and of distance-learning technology to train the teachers.
Recently, they have developed an interactive Web site to enable online access to the modules, and automated data-gathering of teacher and student use of the modules. In this second phase, they are expanding their project to test the modules on 20,000 students.
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