Supporting today’s educators to empower tomorrow’s scientists

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The COVID-19 vaccines are a triumph of modern science. It took less than a year from the start of the pandemic in the United States for the first shots to go into arms — the fastest creation of a vaccine in the history of modern medicine.

We owe a great deal to the doctors, scientists, engineers, public health experts and frontline workers who helped bring hope to millions. Already, we are seeing the fruits of their labor in the United States: diminishing infection rates, fewer deaths and a loosening of restrictions. As global vaccination efforts continue to build, our successes at home encourage the international community — many of whom are still feeling some of the worst impacts of the pandemic.

As we chart new paths forward, it is important to take note of subtle, yet important, details of how we got to the point where safe, effective vaccines were available in record time. Decades ago, the experts behind these vaccines were themselves young, curious students. Many had teachers who encouraged and inspired them and sent them down paths that led them through years of schooling and training, and into the research laboratories. It was these bright young minds and the research they inspired that led us to where we are today so quickly.

As a former elementary school teacher, my mother, Betty Van Andel, understood the power of a good education. When plans for Van Andel Institute were being formalized, we ensured the simultaneous creation of Van Andel Institute for Education to champion K-12 science education.

A quarter century later, her legacy endures. Van Andel Institute for Education has empowered thousands of teachers to provide a strong science education to thousands of students — many of whom have gone on to pursue careers in biomedical research and other science fields. Our nimble staff of expert educators provides robust, relevant support to teachers and students because we are constantly attuned to evolving needs.

A recent example of this is VacciNation, a free, online project-based learning unit launched by the Institute in early 2021. VacciNation teaches students the history of vaccines and how they protect us from illnesses like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Hundreds of teachers in Michigan and beyond downloaded the project to use in their classrooms. Shortly after the project’s release, vaccine manufacturers announced they would begin evaluating the vaccines for use in 12-to-15-year-olds — making VacciNation an even more timely lesson, and one that helped educators and parents navigate a complex topic with their inquisitive young students.

The Institute also has helped teachers with professional development webinars and instructional resources throughout the pandemic by providing high-quality, inquiry-based instruction whether they found themselves in virtual, hybrid, or in-person environments. To keep this momentum going over the summer and into the new school year, Van Andel Institute for Education is engaging students through science summer camps and helping school administrators navigate the challenges left from the pandemic, most notably overcoming issues relating to learning loss, equity and social-emotional learning.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has significantly disrupted K-12 education and put considerable pressure on teachers, students and parents alike. Headlines warn of teacher burnout, with many retiring early or leaving the profession altogether. These are hard truths to face, but educators know there also is opportunity in adversity. The pandemic has been the largest disruption to education in centuries; schools had to reinvent themselves to accommodate virtual learning almost overnight. As they prepare to return to in-person learning next fall, many schools are taking the opportunity to reimagine what teaching and learning will look like. VAI has an important role to play in helping schools emerge from the pandemic as beacons of curiosity, creativity and critical thinking. 

We are at a pivotal point in the pandemic. As more Americans get vaccinated, we can see the awesome power of science and education in real time. But there will be more diseases like COVID-19 that threaten us. Today’s students are the scientists of tomorrow who will meet the health challenges of the future head-on. They will need role models and others to encourage them on the way. Teachers are instrumental in this journey, and we must give them our unyielding support. Human health now, and in the future, depends on it.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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