North Carolina's Research Triangle: Bringing real science into the classroom
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How do we connect the science that happens in labs to the science that happens in classrooms?
North Carolina's Research Triangle
The Research Triangle is, as the name implies, a place of science. The Triangle is a region of North Carolina anchored by three major research universities; the largest research park in the United States; the cities of Raleigh and Durham; and the town of Chapel Hill. It is renowned for biotechnology, world class healthcare infrastructure, several historically Black colleges and universities, numerous corporate and government research labs, and three major science centers committed to engaging the public in inclusive ways.
Despite the wealth of research and a culture of innovation in the region, K-12 school systems face challenges of equity, accessibility, and poverty. Durham County in particular remains a place of stark contrasts. Nearly 20 percent of county residents speak a language other than English at home, and less than half are homeowners. According to Durham’s Partnership for Children, approximately 28 percent of Durham County’s children live in poverty, higher than state and national averages. This disparity persists across the Triangle, contributing to the notion that there are “two Triangles” — one where kids are given the opportunity to explore science and STEM careers, and one where kids are not.
Bringing Real Science into the Classroom
The region's STEM experts and educators have created a web of science interaction and learning: STEM companies, universities, and research institutions reach out to schools; science centers connect STEM professionals to students; and public school systems reach out to local STEM professionals to bring real, relevant science to their students.
Some outreach institutions have played especially important roles in strengthening the region's scientist-classroom connections.
- Three major science centers — The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center in Chapel Hill, and the Museum of Life and Science in Durham — have become community conduits for scientist outreach.
- Regional conferences like Bridging the Gap aim to bring visibility and access to STEM resources, and efforts like the Triangle Learning Network connect learning practitioners with one another to create and share education innovations.
- Triangle-area companies are active in getting their scientists into classrooms as STEM ambassadors. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center works to better educate Triangle students in the life sciences. Biogen, a leading pharmaceutical company, created a community lab that trains high school students in laboratory skills. GlaxoSmithKline has an outreach arm that puts scientists into schools and trains teachers in STEM. And BASF has a dedicated outdoor classroom and pollinator garden on their campus.
Initially, many efforts overlapped, headed by disparate institutions with related missions. Over the last decade, however, overarching initiatives like the Triangle Learning Network and the North Carolina Science Festival have helped organizations combine their efforts and make opportunities more visible and replicable year after year.
The Triangle Region's Commitment
The entrepreneurial climate of the Triangle has led to an eagerness among institutions and schools to bring the successes of the business and research world into the classroom, inspiring the diverse students of the region. Real science done by local scientists makes the subject matter relevant to students and more effectively connects them to STEM learning in school. Region-wide efforts to bring real science to students make accessibility, inclusivity, and equity primary guiding principles.
Examples and highlights:
STEM RTP, a multi-year effort of Research Triangle Park, involves a dozen institutions including banks, pharmaceutical companies, universities, and government labs with a mission to expand and diversify North Carolina’s STEM workforce. STEM RTP focuses on engaging students from low-income backgrounds, girls, and ethnic minorities in STEM outreach and mentoring activities. STEM RTP trains scientists on best practices for working with students and provides multiple avenues for interaction, including one-time events, classroom visits, and longer-term mentoring opportunities. They also provide STEM immersion experiences to local educators and equip STEM organizations with opportunities to volunteer.
Audacity Labs is a collaboration between Duke University's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, the Museum of Life and Science, and two local incubators: American Underground and ReCity. Audacity Labs is a start-up accelerator and co-working space for the region’s teenagers, providing skills, coaching, and tools to co-create their own ventures. Included in the program is a formal mentorship program in which teen participants are partnered with practicing entrepreneurs from across the Triangle to field questions; provide guidance; and provide a real-world view of the life, challenges, and joys of being an entrepreneur.
Real Science: Field Trip Fridays (FTF) is a new program created by Durham Public Schools’ “Science Alliance” and the Museum of Life and Science, bringing the science “happening in our backyard” into classrooms and homes. Although the idea emerged prior to the COVID-19 epidemic, in 2020 it evolved to support the unique and complex challenges of remote and hybrid learning environments. Each Friday, the Museum’s team of science communicators livestreams a virtual field trip from the working location of a scientist, engineer, or other professional who uses science in their daily lives, from bakers to basketball players and doctors to drone operators. Students and teachers can access the stream and participate in the field trip from their classrooms, homes, or anywhere else they might be. The field trips include video content, live tours and experiments, Q&A sessions with science professionals, and instructions for a hands-on science activity that can be tried in class or at home.