Shelley Brown enjoyed two birthday cakes the year she was a freshman at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School on Chicago’s Near West Side. One celebrated the day that she was born. The second cake changed the direction of her life.
“I owe my decision to pursue a lifelong career in biomedical research to Hortense Brice,” says Brown, of the Chicago Public Schools biology teacher who assigned her class to come up with creative ways to portray a human cell in three dimensions. Brown envisioned a birthday cake as the cell, with its organelles drawn in colored icing.
“The idea for the cake may have been simplistic,” says Brown, who is now a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan. “But the impact Ms. Brice’s teaching and that project had on my life was monumental.”
In the 1990s, Brice regarded the still-emerging field of biotechnology with great interest and began educating herself by enrolling in teacher workshops on the subject at institutions ranging from the University of Chicago to Dartmouth College. Credited with bringing the study of biotechnology to CPS, Brice is now extending the field’s reach to hundreds of classrooms through her leadership in a professional development program for CPS middle school and high school teachers.
Brice, who attended the Leadership Cohort master’s program in IIT’s Department of Mathematics and Science Education (MSED), retired in June 2009 after 42 years as a CPS educator. She is now devoting her time to a new program held in partnership with global medical products and services company Baxter International, Inc. Funded for five years, the program aims to train at least 30 teachers each year to bring biotechnology to the classroom.
“My dad always used to say, ‘Any old way won’t do.’ And if I’ve shared anything with students over the years, I’ve told them very nicely, ‘You are capable of achieving whatever you want.”
Home base for the teacher development program is Lindblom Math and Science Academy, where Brice taught for the last four years of a career that also included appointments as biology teacher at Harlan Community Academy, biology teacher and science department chair at King College Prep High School, and biology teacher at Whitney Young. Her office is next to the biotechnology classroom and laboratory she established when she first came to Lindblom, still decorated as she left it, with clusters of colorful buckyball models hanging from the ceiling. Her voice is soft but her words convey a strong sense of self and purpose that is grounded in Southern-bred convictions of family, church, and education.
Although she was born in the rural South, her mother made sure that books were a staple and typical Christmas gifts for Brice and her two sisters. Weekly trips to the local library and placement on the honor roll were all expected of the siblings, who would not play house but school, with eldest sister Brice as the teacher. When the family moved north, Brice’s father learned the pipefitting trade and her mother went to school to become a medical technician. The sisters all graduated from college, with each chipping in to help pay the other’s tuition costs. (Brice’s late sister Delores “Dee” Parmer Woodtor earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University and her sister Twinet Parmer earned a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.)
For a short time Brice was married, though she raised her son singlehandedly after she and her husband divorced. Money was a little tight, but Brice knew how to make a stew of chicken drumsticks, veggies, noodles, and a dash of Lawry’s seasoning go a long way.
“My dad always used to say, ‘Any old way won’t do,’” says Brice about her father, who instilled in her this mantra as one of his many Alabama values. “And if I’ve shared anything with students over the years, I’ve told them very nicely, ‘You are capable of achieving whatever you want.
“It’s all in your philosophy. That’s why I always sing my parents’ praises as well as those of other older people who had some influence on my life,” Brice explains. “Money is important, yes. But you can raise your children and bring them up properly without having a lot of money. It’s about parental expectations and modeling, how high you raise the bar, and the importance you place on values, integrity, and character.”
Brice has seen many parents make education a priority. After accompanying Brice on a class field trip to Lincoln Park Zoo, the mother of one Whitney Young student living in the Cabrini-Green public housing development was motivated to work two jobs—one that brought in money for daily living and a second for her daughter’s new computer fund. Brice’s own resourcefulness and determination netted thousands of dollars for laboratory tools through corporate grants she wrote to bring biotechnology to CPS.
Other priorities prevented the biotechnology program from gaining firm ground at both King College Prep and Whitney Young, but things changed when Brice went to Lindblom and met Principal Alan Mather, who encouraged her to write a course description to present to the Chicago School Board. The yearlong course was approved for launch at Lindblom, a selective-enrollment high school.
Mather spoke with Baxter representatives about partnership opportunities with the school and invited them to Lindblom’s “Principal for a Day” program, where they observed the biotechnology course taught by Brice.
“They left saying, ‘Now we know how we want to be involved,’” says Mather. “It was certainly her passion and competence that inspired those at Baxter to become involved in CPS. There is no other way to describe this partnership as coming from anywhere but from Hortense.”
The Baxter grant provides $2 million to support the Biotechnology Center of Excellence at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, $1 million to support the CPS Renaissance 2010 model schools’ initiative, and $2 million to supplement ongoing learning opportunities for students and teachers throughout the city, including programs through MSED, which are benefiting from a gift of $680,000.
Norman G. Lederman, MSED professor and chair, says that current science education reform emphasizes the integration of the sciences, orients science in a problem-based learning environment, and engages students through authentic, real-world problems.
“Emphasis on biotechnology is a very effective way to accomplish these goals,” says Lederman. In recognition of Brice’s contributions toward shaping the next generation of Midwest biotechnology and life sciences innovators and leaders, she was given the 2008 iCON Knowledge Builder Award from the iBIO Institute, an Illinois organization that promotes biotechnology education, training, and research.
Of the many recommendations made in the 2007 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, issued by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, is one that states, “laying a foundation for a scientifically literate workforce begins with developing outstanding K–12 teachers in science and mathematics.”
One influential teacher can make a lasting impression on a student, just as one did for Shelley Brown.