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including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Ross to head biotechnology outreach efforts

By Stewart MacInnis

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 07 - October 10, 1996

Nationally recognized high-school biology teacher Rebecca Ross will head the outreach efforts of Virginia Tech's Fralin Biotechnology Center.

Ross, who most recently taught biology at Cave Spring High School in Roanoke County, holds a doctorate in biology and science education from Virginia Tech. The National Association of Biology Teachers presented her with its 1995 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for Virginia. She also earned the Virginia Association of Science Teachers 1991 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award, and the 1993 national Tandy Award as one of the outstanding science teachers in the United States.

"I've taught both high-school and college students," she said. "That gives me a perspective that will be very useful, and I know the types of things teachers may need. High-school teachers don't have much money, so their greatest need is in equipment, advice, and training."

Heading the outreach arm of the biotechnology center at Virginia's largest research university gives Ross a mission that spans the commonwealth. Her clients are primarily Virginia's science teachers.

"The whole field of biotechnology and genetic engineering is so explosive that it's hard to keep up," she said. "That is the idea behind what I do here. I network with teachers all over the state and ask for their advice on what they need. We have a committee made up of 30 high-school and college faculty members who brainstorm on ways to improve biotechnology education."

Her outreach efforts will include an annual state-wide and regional biotechnology conference designed to help high-school teachers as well as college faculty members keep informed on developments in the rapidly changing field. She will also produce a quarterly newsletter for 1,600 high-school and college faculty members, conduct workshops for teachers across the state, and seek grant funding to expand the center's outreach goals.

Another part of the outreach effort is an equipment loan program. Teachers can check out trunks of equipment and supplies to use for two-week sessions on DNA in their classrooms. The trunks-there are several of them available simultaneously-provide the teachers with access to as much as $6,000 worth of equipment and expendable supplies. That cost is enough to prevent most schools from exposing students to sophisticated biotechnology techniques.

Last year, 17 schools used the equipment; this year that number will increase to 40 or more. Demand has become so great that the trunk loaner program is being coordinated by the Fralin Center's laboratory manager.

Ross isn't entirely new to the job. She has set up teacher workshops and conferences for the center since 1994.

"I've been working with the Fralin Center for three years part time, and I helped set up the first loaner trunks," she said.

Ross has taught in both Michigan and Virginia at the high school and college levels. Teaching has been an important part of her life, and Ross sees her role as an educator continuing, though in a different manner than previously.

"I'll miss the classroom," she said. "But I've enjoyed working with the Fralin Center for the last three years, and I'm committed to the vision of the center and its outreach mission. Dr. Tracy Wilkins, the center's director, and Don Ball, the center's administrator, have been extremely supportive of teachers in Virginia and trying to educate them in this new technology. All biology teachers who are benefiting from the efforts of the Fralin Center are greatly indebted to them and to Horace Fralin."

A bequest by Fralin, a Virginia Tech alumnus and proponent of the biotechnology effort on campus, has provided funds for many of the innovative activities at the center.