U.S. pupils of course study health and science in school. But programs funded by SEPA grants tackle cutting-edge issues, allowing students to grapple with contemporary health challenges facing scientists and academics. Students might model how infectious disease spreads or study how different states approach the public-health issues surrounding opting out of vaccinations. They might explore the connection between addiction and the brain or debate the allocation of organ transplants. They might use Skittles to learn about control groups and blinding in research studies. “We put out a unit on epigenetics,” says Stark , who recently organized the annual NIH science education conference, “that’s not even in textbooks yet.”
The informal programs also influence teaching in the classroom. In North Carolina, Chowning’s counterpart Suzanne Wilkison recommended that materials developed by the NIH Office of Science Education underpin a N.C. Department of Public Instruction statewide high school course on biomedical technologies. More than 7,000 students took the class last year. Wilkison recently helped educators piece together another course based on six NIH curriculum supplements, one of which tracks the evolution of medicine—now its future is unclear. “We contacted the Office and said, ‘North Carolina just started down the path of creating this course using your tools,’” says Wilkison, president of the N.C. Association for Biomedical Research. “‘What should we do?’”
Perhaps the greatest void would come from losing the hands-on teaching and outreach to underrepresented students like Idris that characterizes SEPA programs. To understand how alcohol is digested, for example, kids in Boston conducted their own experiments: they put a fixed amount of enzyme in a test tube and poured in increasing amounts of alcohol. “We do it with a color change so students can watch what happens,” says Carla Romney, director of research for CityLab, the SEPA-funded program at Boston University’s School of Medicine. “You add more and more alcohol, and eventually the enzyme can’t keep up. That’s how you get drunk. We don’t say, ‘Don’t drink.’ Instead we teach kids what happens to their body when they drink.”
Such vivid experiences make SEPA programs popular, leaving observers puzzled about the impending cuts. In a recent conference call between the agencies designated to helm STEM education and recipients of NIH science education grants, “none of the three agencies said that health literacy or health education was within their mission,” recalls Stark, who directs the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah. The center has relied on NIH funding to develop the most widely used online genetics education resource in the world. Learn.Genetics (for students and the general public) and Teach.Genetics (for instructors) are in the top 99.995 percentile of the Internet’s most visited sites. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Stark says.
Under the reorganization, the number of all STEM programs would shrink from 226 to 110. “These disciplined choices to reorganize and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs make room for targeted increases, allow for easier coordination, and improve opportunities for rigorous evaluation of the remaining programs,” John Holdren, director of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, told the Senate budget committee in May.
The Senate is not persuaded and is now pushing back. In mid-July, the Senate Appropriations Committee released a report that expressed its displeasure with the reallocation of resources, saying it “is not convinced that the quality of these programs would be maintained if they were moved to other Federal agencies.” The committee called for NIH to continue operating the Office of Science Education and the SEPA programs.