Quality Science for All: Q&A with Tara Bennett Bristow

How do you make science accessible for everyone? LabXchange continues to ask this question with the hope of breaking down technological barriers in order to make the life sciences available to learners all over the world, especially where resources are lacking.

This month we wanted to focus our attention on the importance of quality science for everyone, so we sat down with LabXchange team member, Tara Bennett Bristow, who is taking this challenge head-on.

Tara Bennett Bristow

Tara Bennett Bristow

Q: Tara, you have been a part of Harvard for a while now. Can you elaborate on this, and how you ended up on this project?

A: Yes, I have been here at Harvard now for 18 years. I came to Harvard in 2000 after teaching high school Biology for a couple of years. My first role here was as a part of the Teaching laboratories staff designing laboratory explorations for a variety of undergraduate courses. That particular job was the perfect outlet for combining my passion for teaching with my love of laboratory research. After two years, I joined Professor Robert Lue on the HHMI grant developing a robust Life Sciences Outreach program. I spent the next fourteen years working with him and Susan L. Johnson to help graduate students, post-docs, and faculty translate their Harvard research into tangibles for a high school audience. What was particularly rewarding for me was the opportunity to build and nurture a community of high school teachers from around MA and New England. We have over 500 teachers who are part of this community of teachers and learners.

Q: What makes this work different from what you have done in the past?

A: What distinguishes the LabXchange initiative from my former roles here at Harvard is the focus on the online learning platform. We hosted many of our resources on the Life Science Outreach website in the past, but never had a mechanism for truly connecting teachers and allowing them to share the way these resources fit into the larger picture of a curriculum. So LabXchange will be unique in that there will be teacher designed pathways to share with a national and international audience.

Q: What sort of challenges do you face working in the edtech space now?

A: The challenge now is to identify which resources already exist to meet the needs of our teachers and students and which we need to create with our collaborators in order to meet the specific needs of our audience. Our initial focus is on curating and creating resources to address topics in biotechnology, but we will broaden this focus soon.

Q: Who are the LabXchange teachers, and how does your own teaching experience impact your work with them?

A: We have teachers from our Life Sciences Outreach and Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) program networks who have become involved in LabXchange. Our small group of six collaborators who are known as our “Master ABE Teachers” have been involved in the ABE program for years, but many have also been working with us on a variety of initiatives for more than a decade. These teachers, along with those that attend our LabXchange summer workshops, are my colleagues and partners in design and development. I think that having been a high school life sciences teacher for five years allows me to empathize with them and also to understand how crucial their involvement is at every stage of development, design, testing and dissemination.

Q: In your opinion, why is it important to involve high school teachers in this development process?

A: When I was teaching I didn’t feel that most of the available resources reflected an understanding of my audiences’ needs. When I left teaching and became involved in designing Outreach programs, I was absolutely committed to making sure that our professional development programs put teachers at the front and center of curriculum development.  The size, breadth, and diversity of our teacher community allows us to address the needs of many different types of learners, which results in a easier on-boarding of our resources into the classroom.

Q: How can other teachers get involved?

A: We are working with a relatively small group now, but very soon we will be asking more teachers to get involved by sharing resources with us that they feel would help us to communicate our topics to a wide variety of audiences. We also have some opportunities for collaborating with us on resource curation.

Q: What strategies are in play for involving even more people in the development stages of LabXchange?

A: One of our priorities is making sure that the platform goes through extensive beta testing. For this to happen, we need to find schools across MA and other areas of the country willing to test the platform with their students. Another goal is having school systems and teachers from across this country and globally who are willing to join the platform and commit to using it with their students when it launches next fall.

Q: How do these strategies change your role with LabXchange?

A: As a result of the need to recruit partners for our platform, I am transitioning from my current role as Secondary School Instructional Design Manager to a Partnerships Consultant with a focus on secondary schools. This new role will afford me the flexibility needed to develop relationships with these partners and also design the tools needed to properly onboard teachers through both virtual and in person professional development workshops.

Q: What most excites you about this new role?

A: What most excites me about this new role is the opportunity to recruit schools and teachers from places around the world who have limited access to quality life sciences and laboratory resources. My initial focus will be on schools and districts from states in the middle of the country. Of course, I will be reaching out to our Life Sciences Outreach network of teachers here in New England with the hopes that they will also join us on the LabXchange platform.

Q: What have you learned from your time with LabXchange so far, that you hope to incorporate in your future work?

A: What I love about LabXchange is that I am learning all of the time. Conversations with our development team at Hubble in South Africa, my colleagues here at LabXchange,  and the teachers and members of the Harvard community who have been involved in development and strategy have all contributed to new knowledge. These partners bring unique perspectives to how the platform should function and what needs to happen in order for it to be successful in its goals. I feel very fortunate to be part of such an exciting initiative and to be learning from leaders in the field of online education.

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