Arizona Biosciences News
SFAz awards grant to remake Biosphere 2 as teacher-training center
Twenty years ago, a group of visionary scientists and entrepreneurs came to the Sonoran Desert near Oracle, Ariz. and constructed Biosphere 2, an intricate, sealed model of life on Earth, from microbes to mangroves to mountains. Last week, key figures from throughout the venture's evolution announced a new role for Biosphere 2: providing hands-on training for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics teachers.
Pierre Meystre, director of UA's Biosphere 2
Institute. (Photo courtesy J. Martinez/
University of Arizona - Biosphere 2/CDO
Ranching & Development)
Twenty years ago, a group of visionary scientists and entrepreneurs came to the Sonoran Desert near Oracle, Ariz., and built Biosphere 2, an intricate, sealed model of life on Earth, from microbe to mangrove to mountain. Last week, key figures from the venture's evolution announced Biosphere 2's new purpose, as a training center for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) teachers.
The facilities at Biosphere 2, which are now managed by the University of Arizona, will be used to give K-12 teachers hands-on training in conducting research. The Arizona Center for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Teachers (ACST) will train as many as 300 teachers over the next three years, thanks to a three-year, $1.5 million grant to UA's B2 Institute from Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz), and a matching grant from the Philecology Foundation.
"A scientifically literate and technically savvy population is essential to the future of the state of Arizona, and to maintain our quality of life in decades ahead," said UA Regents' Professor Pierre Meystre, director of the B2 Institute and one of ACST's leaders. "It is central to the health of our democratic system, which asks our citizens to decide on, and understand, increasingly complex issues."
Among the center's offerings will be intensive, onsite summer research programs for teachers, formal lectures from practicing scientists, a Web portal with online resources and networking tools, programs to develop hands-on curricula that teachers can take back to their classrooms, and professional mentoring and support by master teachers.
"SFAz is pleased to be part of this effort," said William C. Harris, president and CEO of SFAz. "Through SFAz's newly established STEM Education Center, we will work with the B2 Institute to ensure that this effort thrives and opens doors for students and teachers across our state."
"Our goal is to build a world-class education infrastructure to support Arizona's innovation economy," added Darcy Renfro, executive director of the STEM Education Center. "Without a first-class base of professional support for teachers, it will not be possible to continue building a world-class education system."
The STEM Education Center and ACST are both elements of what Dr. Meystre described as a "statewide training and retention effort." Broad consensus has emerged nationwide in recent years that future economic competitiveness depends on more-effective STEM education. Filling STEM teaching positions with qualified educators is notoriously difficult but essential to boosting the quality of STEM education offerings.
"Strengthening science and mathematics education must be at the forefront of Arizona's and the nation's agenda," said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the UA College of Science. "The SFAz award recognizes this issue and will provide much-needed programs aimed at recruiting and retaining science and mathematics teachers in our communities."
The Philecology Foundation's contribution to ACST meets SFAz's legislative mandate for a matching grant; it also extends the relationship between Biosphere 2 and Edward Bass, the Texas businessman and philanthropist who heads the Philecology Foundation. One of Bass's companies, Decisions Investment, was the principal funder—to the tune of $200 million--for Biosphere 2's initial incarnation as a means to explore whether and how ecological processes could be sustained in a closed system.
Last year, after the Biosphere 2 complex and surrounding land was sold to CDO Ranching and Development L.P. for $50 million, the Philecology Foundation made a $30 million grant to UA to continue operation of Biosphere 2. UA leases the facilities for $100 a year.
That arrangement jumpstarted new opportunities for the institution. One research arm, B2 Earthscience, is investigating major climate-change, water-use, and energy problems. The B2 Institute is grappling with cross-disciplinary "grand challenges" that require contributions from researchers in many fields.
Like Bass, Dr. Harris of SFAz has been tied to Biosphere 2's evolution. From 1997-2000, Dr. Harris served as Biosphere 2's president and executive director, when the research site was managed by Columbia University. During his tenure, Dr. Harris worked to establish and strengthen new educational and research programming at Biosphere 2 and build up relationships with other Arizona institutions.
Laurie Burrell, a fifth-grade teacher in the Amphitheater School District and the Arizona Educational Foundation Teacher of the Year in 2007, is co-leading ACST. She noted that teachers and students statewide would benefit from ACST's establishment. Researchers and science-education experts from all three Arizona public universities will join in training teachers.
"STEM educators across Arizona can now meet at Biosphere 2 to find the support they've been looking for, thanks to the confidence of the Science Foundation Arizona and an amazing team of dedicated visionaries," Burrell said.
For more information:
"Biosphere 2 teaching project a good step," Arizona Daily Star, 12/06/2008
"Biosphere 2 to become training site for teachers," Arizona Republic, 12/03/2008
UA news release, 12/03/2008
PodCats interview with B2 Institute Director Peirre Meystre and colleagues
"Biosphere 2: A New Mission," KUAT video report
"International Science Exam Shows Plateau in U.S. Performance," Washington Post, 12/09/2008
A National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System, National Science Board, October 2007
Report of the Academic Competitiveness Council, U.S. Department of Education, May 2007