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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 9, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 33
Enriching High School Science

Students in Darlene Malat's Forest Park High School class unpack computers outfitted with Probeware. Malat obtained them through a grant, using skills she learned while attending the five-week RET program at Johns Hopkins.

City teachers sharpen research, grant-writing skills in JHU program

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

To the outside eye, the computers delivered last week to Darlene Malat's Forest Park High School classroom might seem like no more than a collection of monitors and CPUs. But to Malat, the much-anticipated equipment symbolizes a bridge to a wonderland of scientific discovery for her students.

Last summer, Malat was one of nine Baltimore high school teachers who took part in the Research Experience for Teachers program at Johns Hopkins, which allows teachers to spend five weeks in a research laboratory working alongside a team of JHU faculty and graduate students. The Johns Hopkins RET program, which began in 2001 and is sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation, seeks to give participants hands-on lab experience at the university level to enrich their teaching and to show them real-world applications of science. In addition to the laboratory time, participants, who earn a competitive stipend, take a two-week crash course in research methodology and proposal writing. At the end of the program, participants can submit proposals for classroom projects to the principal investigator of the grant, who has NSF funds to support such endeavors.

In the grant proposal Malat wrote, she requested computers outfitted with Probeware, software used to gather and analyze data in science, math and technology classes. Probeware systems allow the user, for example, to interface with a graphing calculator or measure the PH of a liquid. "With these systems my students can now connect math, science and technology; it brings us into this century," says Malat, who has been teaching high school for nearly 30 years. "Right now in our high schools there is so much emphasis on standardized testing and tests in general, but this equipment will allow our students to get back to what science is all about — discovery."

Leigh Abts, a principal research scientist in the Whiting School's Department of Computer Science and principal investigator and founder of the RET program at Johns Hopkins, says that more than 125 teachers have worked with JHU professors over the past four years. Abts says the program has proved to be an effective way of enriching high school science classrooms through the further education of its teachers.

"The program concentrates on working with teachers from inner city neighborhood schools, where students are more likely to drop out than graduate. Teachers from these schools are dedicated but lack the resources to properly teach science and math," Abts says. "The RET program offers opportunities for the teachers to not only gain the resources but also the content support to encourage students to continue their studies in science and math."

Malat worked in the lab of Michael Betenbaugh, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where she studied apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Malat says she was not previously familiar with apoptosis and recalls doing an Internet search when she first learned what the specific focus of her research would be. Malat says she quickly became fascinated with the lab's work, which in time rekindled her passion for science.

"I've been teaching for a long time, and I'm always looking for things to keep me interested in science, which is why I applied to this program," she says. "By the end of the experience at Johns Hopkins last summer, I was reminded why I went into science to start out with. The research work and the excitement of discovery brought it all back for me. It was a reinvigorating and wonderful experience. Teaching can be isolating at times, so it felt good to be part of a team."

Sharon Ball, who also received her classroom equipment last week, worked in the lab of David Gracias, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, where she conducted research on robotics and nanotechnology.

Ball, who has taught science at Southwestern High School in Baltimore for the past 10 years, says the experience allowed her in a very short time to absorb a wealth of research and engineering principles. Specifically, she learned about chemical etching technologies and the various applications of "smart dust," tiny wireless sensors that can detect everything from light to vibrations.

For her class at Southwestern, Ball wrote a grant proposal requesting Lego Mindstorms kits so that students could build basic robotic parts and systems, applying some of the engineering principles she learned while at Johns Hopkins.

"I can't tell you what a big boost this equipment will be for my students. I'm so excited that they will be able to have a hands-on experience working with these applications, not just reading about them," Ball says. "The faculty and students at Johns Hopkins have shown tremendous support and interest in my classroom. It's been such a wonderful learning experience for me."

The faculty say the program has benefits for them as well because it allows them to help improve the public school system.

"We believe that if we impact the teachers, then we impact a far greater number of students," Gracias says, "because each teacher goes back to his world and takes it back with him."

For more information about the RET program at Johns Hopkins, contact Abts at

Jessica Valdez, an intern in the Office of News and Information, contributed to this article.


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