University of Arizona’s GK-12 program, BioME: Biodiversity from Molecules to Ecosystems, has been highly successful both within the university and in the Tucson public education community. BioME graduate fellows bring cutting-edge approaches, including molecular techniques, computational biology, and experience with live organisms and ecological systems, to teach fundamental concepts of ecology and evolution; all activities focus on giving K-12 students hands-on experiences with the process of scientific inquiry. Given that BioME is now is in its fourth year, it is possible to evaluate what has worked and not worked, as well as how the educational culture of the university has changed. At the same time, it is critical to look forward to consider how the activities BioME has initiated can be sustained.
Evolution education is highly valued by most teachers and school administrators in Tucson. This attitude, in association with the fact that BioME is building on longstanding University of Arizona school outreach relationships, made the program immediately popular in the community. There has been much more demand for BioME fellows than we have been able to meet, despite receiving roughly three times more graduate student applications for fellowships than we could support financially. Less resistance than expected was encountered from graduate advisors concerned that their students were deferring research activities in favor of teaching. Advisors clearly recognize the need for students to gain skills needed to connect with the pubic about biodiversity in a rapidly changing world, and about evolution as the foundation of our biological understanding. Administrators at every university level have been supportive of the goals of the GK-12 program, although they tend to promote it as an outreach rather than educational activity. Consequently, there is great enthusiasm among all participants towards institutionalizing BioME’s activities. However, a nearly insurmountable obstacle to sustainability has been the economic downturn and the toll it has taken on education as a whole in Arizona. This is being felt in dramatically reduced funding for nonessential activities throughout the public education system, including the state-funded universities. At the same time, other foundations and philanthropic institutions have less ability to support worthy activities. There is so much enthusiasm, however, that it may be possible to sustain at least some of BioME’s partnership efforts on a volunteer basis.