The EvolvingSTEM program provides high school students with a guided life science research experience to increase student confidence in their ability to act and think as scientists. EvolvingSTEM is a major component of Dr. Vaughn Cooper’s evolutionary microbiology laboratory in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, with support from the Center for Evolutionary Biology and Medicine, which Dr. Cooper co-founded and directs.
EvolvingSTEM was founded in 2013 as an outgrowth of the Cooper laboratory’s research on the genetic adaptations that enable bacterial populations to colonize hosts, interact with other microbes, initiate symbioses, and cause disease. Dr. Cooper had a strong interest in educating students on how evolution is a unifying theory for the life sciences and how understanding evolutionary concepts is crucial for medical applications, such as cancer and antibiotic resistance.
Unfortunately, Dr. Cooper saw that many students entered college with significant misunderstandings about evolutionary concepts. He realized that the root of this problem is that evolution is poorly represented in most high school biology courses. Although hands-on learning experiences have been widely adopted for many STEM disciplines, the evolution continues to be taught with passive learning strategies that lead to student disengagement with the material and misunderstanding of core concepts.
Dr. Cooper believed that the best way to learn about evolution was by seeing it happen in real-time. He and his research team, most notably Dr. Abigail Matela, partnered with highly motivated teachers to develop an engaging evolutionary biology curriculum that not only increases knowledge of the subject, but also inspires an enduring interest in science. They came up with EvolvingSTEM, an interactive biology laboratory that allows high school students to learn evolution, microbiology, genetics, and essential biotechnology skills by conducting a week-long experiment with harmless bacteria. In essence, students observe “evolution-in-action” as bacterial populations adapt to form complex biofilm communities in their test tubes. In just a few days, colonies mutate from smooth circles to wrinkly rosettes to fill diverse ecological roles. These findings are medically relevant, as pathogenic bacteria involved in chronic infections often evolve to form biofilms through mutations in the same genetic pathways as the classroom experiment. Students gain confidence in STEM topics by learning through hands-on experiences and draw connections from their bench-top experiment to real-life medical applications. EvolvingSTEM was so well received that it eventually replaced the freshman evolution curriculum at the founding schools.
The EvolvingSTEM program shares Remake Learning’s mission to make connections that will advance engaging, relevant, and equitable learning practices to support student success. Dr. Cooper and Dr. Matela currently work with a dedicated team of teachers, technicians, university and high school students, and a network of partners, including the Learning Disabilities Association of PA, the Hillman Academy, and Camp BioE. Dr. Cooper and his team continually strive to improve the quality and accessibility of EvolvingSTEM, and these improvements have vastly increased program adoption. Since 2017, ten new schools and six colleges have partnered with the Cooper lab, with the program benefitting >1700 students and >20 teachers across seven states and continuing to grow. Dr. Cooper’s current region of focus is the ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse Pittsburgh Public School District (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). Here, EvolvingSTEM will address the critical need for effective, engaging, and accessible innovations in life science education that promote lifelong learners and a well-educated, diverse STEM workforce.