County Teacher's Lab Manuals Bring Biology To Life

March 08, 1992|By Margaret Buchler | Margaret Buchler,Contributing writer

After four years of teaching high school science with books she feltwere inadequate, biology teacher Mary Pitt Davis decided to write her own.

That was at Oakland Mills High School in 1977. The task involved collecting and testing dozens of experiments and getting the freedom to investigate and buy supplies.

Her 11-year effort produced two lab manuals -- each about 500 pages long -- which have since become recommended texts in many states and part of the basic biology curriculum in the county schools. They are used in community colleges and private schools and have been translated into Braille. Hardbound editions will be published soon.

Davis, who lives in Dayton, moved to Glenelg High this year.

"We havea gold mine in Mrs. Davis," said Glenelg High School Principal JamesMcGregor. "Because of her expertise and background . . . her manualsare on the cutting edge."

Davis said she had no choice but to write the books -- one for regular classes and one for advanced students.

"I got tired of seeing the little add-ons (experiments) that came along with the standard textbook . . . there was nothing to tie it to the topic at hand," Davis said. "It was just an exercise, a fun-and-games."

Most textbooks teach concepts, but ignore laboratory techniques, she said.

By contrast, an exercise Davis offers is a blood test similar to one that hospitals routinely use to pinpoint traumain the heart, brain or other organs. Other tests are standard experiments "that have been around for 400 years that kids still have to learn," said Davis.

Her advanced students had been using a manual designed for four-hour college lab sessions, although their own labs lasted only 55 minutes.

Davis, who also is a lab researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, believes that lab classesare essential to learning science. And she thinks publishers should rely more on teachers for help.

"You don't have the practitioners (teachers and scientists) making the textbooks anymore," she said.

Each experiment in Davis's books merits several pages about techniques and equipment.

Mike Robbins, a 10th-grade biology student at Glenelg, said using one of her manuals has helped him better understandthe work.

"Usually you get two sheets that don't explain much, and the teacher has to explain a lot," he said. "If you're absent, you can't get the information. With the lab manual, you can do it at home."

Her long-standing efforts to improve science labs in the high schools also reflect the ever-present struggle to achieve good education within budgetary constraints.

After writing her lab books, Davis had to confront a longtime federal policy that pays for only one text per course in public schools. The policy means that high schools wanting lab manuals, language workbooks and other supplementary texts have an extremely difficult time buying them, Davis said.

At Glenelg and Oakland Mills high schools, where each biology student gets a Davis lab book in addition to the regular text, principals used discretionary money to pay for the Davis manuals. At other county high schools, her lab instructions are photocopied and given to students.

Davis has harnessed a network of community support, which she uses toobtain special materials for her classes.

Universities loan her sophisticated microscopes and donate tissue cultures and specimens, and the Mount Airy Meat Locker is state-certified to donate blood for research. A student who lives nearby picks up the blood and delivers it to school.

"It's not reasonable to expect a school to be able toafford everything," she said.

In Howard County, the science department recently completed a five-year curriculum revision, emphasizinghands-on experience that "surpasses most in the country," said Paul Keyser, science supervisor for county schools. Improvement of the biology lab program can "definitely be laid on her (Davis') doorstep," he said.

Science curriculum coordinator Lee Summerville said that Davis regularly attends university workshops and international conferences and has applied for a fellowship to the National Institutes of Health this summer.

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