Inspiring and training the next generation of scientists

July 8, 2010
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As we are all aware, under the changing rules of today's competitive global economy, the creation of a scientific and technological infrastructure and a scientifically literate work force can play an enormous role in attracting investment, creating job opportunities and revitalizing communities.

To face the scientific, medical and economic challenges that await in the 21st century, we need our best and brightest minds to reach the highest levels of achievement in basic research on human disease, drug development, innovative health care and biotechnology development.

For the U.S., the state of Michigan and our community to remain globally competitive, we must make even stronger investments in our scientific infrastructure, and the logical place to start is a strengthened commitment to science education.

Many may not realize that Van Andel Institute is a dual institute with a dual mission. While the scientists at Van Andel Research Institute work to convert discoveries made at the molecular level into effective therapies for patients of cancer and neurodegenerative disease, Van Andel Education Institute education specialists are dedicated to strengthening science education on an individual, local and national basis.

At VAEI we are doing this in several ways. We offer programs that prepare and motivate students to pursue higher-level scientific study and science related fields, and we do that with programs across the entire spectrum of learning from the elementary school on up through the post-doctoral level. Additionally, our Science Academy serves as a "learning laboratory" to expand the knowledge pool of how children best learn science; we offer professional development to support teachers in the field of science; and we bring together educators, community members and life science work-force partners to determine how the requirements for life science careers can best be integrated into the classroom.

Since 2006, we have welcomed hundreds of West Michigan students, teachers and community members through the doors of the VAEI Science Academy to engage and immerse them in a process known as "inquiry-based science." This is a concept that is integral to the success of our programs, but what does it mean?

The National Science Education standards define inquiry as a multifaceted activity that involves making observations, posing questions, examining secondary sources of information, planning investigations, using what is already known in light of experimental evidence, using tools to gather, analyze and interpret data, proposing answers, explanations and predictions, and communicating the results.

That's the academic language. To explain its significance, several analogies come to mind. To achieve excellence as a musician or athlete requires hours and hours of hands-on practice. We would not hand aspiring concert pianists or basketball players a handbook or textbook on playing Mozart or setting a proper screen and expect them to succeed. We would accompany such instruction with hours of structured practice, expert advice and opportunities to improvise.

Similarly, at VAEI we are training students to be scientists and to do the hard but rewarding work of science by immersing them in inquiry-based science. Our Science Academy Out-of School-Time Cohort Program asks for a three-year commitment from fourth, fifth and sixth graders who attend classes after their normal school day has finished or for intensive courses during summer vacation.

And if you take a close look at the way the Science Academy was designed, you'll see that this program is student-centered. We're fostering curiosity; we want children to ask questions, and our teachers start with those questions and encourage exploration and discovery.

Regardless of their academic or socio-economic background, we want every child who attends the Science Academy to believe he or she can be a scientist. And we welcome students from a diverse array of backgrounds.

The students admitted to our programs reflect the diversity and demographic make-up of West Michigan. If you visit the Science Academy, you will see rural, urban and suburban students working side by side. Students of all social classes, household incomes and parental professional and educational status are represented. And not all students are necessarily initially high academic achievers — but all have shown a curiosity about science and a desire to participate and have made a commitment to the program.

We honor that commitment by motivating these students to learn more, ask more, change the ways in which they learn and to take that change back into the classroom. Our follow-up studies have shown preliminary evidence that these students are taking these new ways of learning back with them to achieve long-term improved academic and personal success.

Eventually, we will measure our success by the following yardstick: No matter which profession these youngsters decide to pursue, we need to prepare a more scientifically literate and engaged populace.

But we also need individuals specifically trained in the methods of scientific inquiry who will one day be able to take their place in the labs and clinical establishments of the Medical Mile. With this important goal in mind, we offer students the opportunity to experience the spark of wonder kindled by scientific discovery, and help nurture that spark into a flame of passion for science.

The collaboration of research and education is critical to advances in science. This combination not only enhances our fight against today's diseases but also allows us to inspire tomorrow's scientists, ensuring that we have a prepared work force to tackle known and yet unimagined challenges.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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