by Heather Zwickey
National Jewish Center, Denver, CO
Has anyone ever asked you what color an antibody is? How often do you describe an MHC/peptide interaction as a hot dog in a bun? When is the last time that you related the relationship between an antigen presenting cell and T cell to dating? These are the sorts of things you can discuss with high school students. If you are looking for an interested captive audience to try your hand at educating the public, your local high school is a great place to start. Some of the immunology graduate students in our program decided to volunteer at Denver area high schools as an effort towards educating the public.
Our first step in setting up a high school outreach program involved contacting high school biology teachers (usually the advanced biology classes) to volunteer our services. Everyone we approached was enthusiastic. Many teachers recognize that they cannot keep up with a field that changes as rapidly as immunology and welcome graduate student help. The teachers provide information about the students' background and help us develop our approach to teaching immunology.
The typical unit for a high school class has been 4 days: Background, AIDS, Immunologic Disease, and Lab Day. By starting with an overview of the immune system, the following days we can discuss the immune response in terms of infections like HIV, and diseases like cancer and diabetes. The lab day requires recruitment of my classmates so we have one graduate student for every 5 high school students. On this day, the students dissect mice, remove spleens, lymph nodes, thymuses, and gut. They make their own slides and compare them to prepared slides of T cells, B cells, macrophages, dendritic cells, and fibroblasts. These slides also serve as a "souvenir" of their immunology unit.
Not only are these lectures popular with students, they are popular with high school teachers. When word gets out that we're teaching an immunology series, everyone from science teachers to music teachers show up to sit in on the lectures. When I have given these lectures in my home town in Minnesota, science teachers come from the surrounding communities to learn how to teach immunology to their students.
HIV is the most popular lecture because the topic is constantly in the news. During the lecture students consider what they would do to attack a disease like HIV. This encourages them to think like a scientist, viewing a disease as a problem that they can solve rather than as a statistic to memorize. The students become excited when, for example, they offer a suggestion for treatment to block HIV viral replication, only to learn that they have proposed AZT, a drug that they have all heard of. The lecture ends with a brief discussion of methods they can take to prevent being infected with HIV, and how to be anonymously tested.
As well as being beneficial to high school students and teachers, teaching has been a great experience for the graduate students. It gives us a renewed energy towards science, and encourages us to be creative in our explanation of how the immune system works. In the scientific world of shrinking funds, the ability to communicate scientific ideas and the importance of research to lay people (who may or may not choose a scientific career) is becoming an increasingly valuable skill for a scientist.