What do fluorescent chicken embryos, strawberry anemones and the central nervous system have in common? They’re all being studied by students from around the country as part of an educational experiment at the Coastal Marine Biolabs (CMB) that could reshape the face of science education.

The biolabs is a one-of-its-kind educational facility and working laboratory, and it’s all happening at Ventura Harbor. Now, having received a Science Education Partnership award in the amount of $1.1 million from the National Institutes of Health, it will give students an opportunity to study nerve system development and spinal cord “hardwiring” — and give the educators an opportunity to study whether or not the biolabs system works.

Ralph Imondi, Ph. D., executive director at Coastal Marine Biolabs, and scientific co-director Linda Santschi have created a learning environment at the harbor that not only challenges students in several fields of science, but puts them into the driver’s seat of field-study research. As the students learn, their work is being used in the real world by scientists in their respective fields.

In the upcoming program featuring study of the central nervous system, the students will also be part of a study within a study to determine the efficacy of the biolabs program itself for potential expansion. This coincides with President Barack Obama’s program, the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which promotes a long-term, large-scale effort to uncover the connectivity of circuits of the brain and spinal cord of humans.

During the ten-day program, junior and senior high school students, with a few graduate students, are taught the three foundations of the so-called next-generation science standards, a set of performance expectations intended to prepare them for a scientific career.

The framework of this new foundation is built upon three dimensions: disciplinary core ideas, which, according to Imondi, often focus on societal issues that require some scientific and technical knowledge to progress; cross-cutting concepts, information obtained from different fields; and finally, scientific practices, which Imondi says are the “most difficult to model in the classroom.”

“These next-generation science standards have [been] or will be adopted by states around the country to address the science education reform agenda,” said Imondi.

While laboratory methods are not without merit, Imondi says, that approach “fails to recognize the professional setting that both professional and academic scientists use on a daily basis.”

“It’s really a distinction between programs that are largely skill-based or skill-oriented versus our approach, which is process- or concept-driven,” said Santschi.

Each program — which lasts roughly 10 days — focuses on a locally relevant or topical theme. In 2013, when Stephanie Neal attended a summer program at the biolabs, scuba diving and gene splicing were on the agenda.

Neal, now a student at the University of Miami working toward a double major in marine science and biology, was a senior high school student in Manhattan Beach when she enrolled. On the first two days of the program, Neal, Imondi and Santschi, along with nine other students, took a trip out to the Channel Islands for day and nighttime scuba diving in search of the strawberry anemone.

“We took the fluorescent protein gene from the strawberry anemone and put it into a chick embryo,” said Neal. “It was basically developing a tool like someone develops a new line of hammers. We were trying to see if these fluorescent protein genes work.”

While Neal studied at the biolabs, she and the other students stayed at a hotel at the harbor. Days varied in length. On the scuba diving trip, which Neal says was “taxing,” the days were long; but even when given the opportunity to leave early, Neal said, the class wanted to continue studying.

“It was such an overwhelmingly positive experience for me,” said Neal. “As a budding scientist, it gives me hope that I’ll be able to be a part of something that actually contributes to the scientific world.”

Imondi says that the data produced by the students results in a scientific output that is then uploaded to a database accessible to scientists across the country. This integration is a distinguishing feature of the program, says Imondi, because the amount of data being produced by scientists worldwide creates a need for it all to be easily accessible.

“How we organize, manage, access and share that scientific data is as important as generating the data itself,” said Imondi.

Santschi says that a big focus of the CMB program is to develop “innovative, web-based tools” for students to organize, analyze and share their findings.

“This prepares them to operate within this landscape of big data in 21st-century data-sharing practices,” said Santschi.

Imondi says that he hopes educational leaders across the country will look upon Coastal Marine Biolabs and replicate it, and that Biolabs has already generated interest from students around the globe.

For Neal, a big benefit of her lesson at Biolabs was experiencing real-world science long before it appears in the traditional classroom and learning how to convey science to those who may not understand certain concepts.

“What I did with Ralph is something I won’t see again for two or three years,” said Neal. “Science is definitely my thing, but unless we can convey it to those who make the decisions and policies, it’s pointless.”


To learn more about the Coastal Marine Biolabs, visit www.coastalmarinebiolabs.org.