August 25, 2010

Teaching evolution enters new era

From fall to spring, Lakshmi Anumukonda is a high school science teacher. But in the summer, she dons a lab coat and becomes a molecular time traveler. She’s part of an ambitious experiment to improve the public’s understanding of evolution, by connecting secondary schools to university research.

“It’s exciting,” Anumukonda says. “We’re looking at chemical bonding and primitive elements that were present on prebiotic Earth.”

Middle- and high-school teachers from throughout metro Atlanta can experience research into the origins of life some 3.5 billion years ago through the Center for Chemical Evolution. The roots of the virtual center go back nearly a decade, growing out of collaborations between Emory and Georgia Tech.

The latest phase of the venture launched in August, fueled by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation and NASA. The center now encompasses 15 laboratories at institutions including Emory, Georgia Tech, the Scripps Research Institute, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Jackson State University, Spelman College, Furman University and the SETI Institute.

The center’s mission “gives me goose bumps,” says Matthew Platz, incoming director of the NSF Division of Chemistry. Platz recalls his own sense of wonder in high school, when he learned about the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment. That was the first demonstration that Earth’s primordial soup favored chemical reactions that could lead to organic compounds.

“I thought that was incredibly cool,” Platz says. “For more than 40 years, I’ve been waiting to learn the next step: how these chemical reactions created life on this planet. Now we have the technology to take on that question.”

As the university scientists seek to unravel how life began, the high school teachers are seeking ways to connect their students to the discoveries.

“I’m learning so much,” Anumukonda says. “Our high school textbooks talk about the prebiotic soup experiment and then stop there. After that, we have no idea about the recent research.”

This summer, she worked alongside scientists in the lab of David Lynn, chair of chemistry at Emory. Lynn leads research into molecular self-assembly and other forces of evolution, along with the center’s education and outreach component.

Anumukonda used her lab experience to develop lesson plans for the self-assembly of molecules. This fall, her high school students will prepare samples of sodium acetate, and then take a field trip to Emory, where they can see through an electron microscope how their samples crystallize under different conditions.

“It’s wonderful to learn about the potential for real-world applications,” says Robert Hairston, another high school science teacher who spent much of his summer in Lynn’s lab. He was intrigued by how the forces of evolution could be harnessed to help in drug design and genome engineering.

“When I bring my students to Emory in the fall, I want them to have questions already in mind,” Hairston says. “They’re going to be amazed when they see the work that is being done.”

Emory seeded the educational component of the center, through an “Evolution Revolution” symposium, teacher workshops, theatrical performances, visual arts and public talks to bring people together to discuss the topic.

“Emory is the perfect place to experiment with ways to improve the public’s understanding of evolution,” Lynn says. “We’ve taken the lead in addressing an issue that is sometimes charged and fractious in the Southeast, when it should be unifying.”

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