Dr. Lisa Elfring, University of Arizona Associate Vice Provost for Instruction and Assessment and Associate Specialist in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, has been named the new faculty of record for the KEYS Research Internship program.
“I’m really interested in how high school students develop as learners at the point in their lives where they're making important decisions about what they want to do,” Elfring said. “It's a real opportunity and a privilege to be able to work with the KEYS students who are at that age where so much is changing so quickly for them.”
Elfring’s passion for education – particularly K-12 – and vast experience with teaching, outreach and course evaluation make her the ideal fit to support the BIO5 Institute’s flagship summer high school internship program. Through her role, she aspires to promote the value and importance of the program in our community and state.
Fostering a critical connection
As a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Elfring became involved in a program that educated local teachers about the institute’s research. This experience sparked Elfring’s curiosity about how teachers transform their scientific interests into classroom lessons.
Hired as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona in 1998, Elfring led a general biology master’s program for middle and high school teachers. At the time, Elfring didn’t know much about the teacher’s role in the classroom as she had transitioned to her new role directly from the lab bench, but soon learned about teaching from her students.
A few years later, Elfring participated in an education and public outreach group led by former BIO5 directors of education, outreach and training Dr. Stacey Forsyth and Kevin Hall. The team led a series of annual events with talks and demos geared towards educating local teachers on the research conducted at BIO5.
One of Elfring’s master’s students, Rachel Miller, was skeptical of this program, believing just because the teachers were excited about UArizona’s research didn’t necessarily mean it would correlate in the classroom. Miller asked Elfring what it would look like to build a research experience for high school students.
“She thought the best way to get students to understand science was to get them to do science in a way that they just can't do during a regular school year,” Elfring said. “I connected her with Dr. Marti Lindsey, Community Engagement Director for the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center at the UArizona College of Pharmacy, and together they envisioned an intensive summer immersion program that ultimately became KEYS. I don’t take any credit for KEYS, other than that I may have made that initial connection between Rachel and Marti!”
Since spurring the collaboration that established the foundation for KEYS, Elfring has been watching the program with great interest over the last 15 years. She’s been especially fond of meeting with students at the annual Research Showcase, asking them about their projects and being amazed by their breadth of knowledge.
A perfect fit
Within the same 15 years, her role at the university has changed, pulling her away from her K-12 and community-centered goals to focus more on teaching undergraduate biology courses, providing educational support for students and faculty, and refining course evaluations. However, she’s missed devoting time to the also important community connections.
“It’s really critical, especially for a public land grant university, to support and build bridges between the community and the work that’s going on at the university,” she said. “I’ve felt bad because I wasn’t a part of that any longer, and it’s really one of the things that made me want to come to UArizona in the first place.”
Thankfully, Elfring will get to fulfill her passion for outreach once again as the new KEYS faculty of record.
“When Dr. Lindsey let me know she would be retiring this summer, I pulled in opinions from all over campus on who we should seek out to take over the important role as KEYS faculty of record,” said Lisa Romero, Senior Director for Public Affairs, Communications and Engagement for the BIO5 Institute. “The first name out of the mouth of virtually everyone I asked was Dr. Lisa Elfring. Lisa is accomplished, thoughtful, engaging, dedicated, well-connected, and believes strongly in the KEYS model. She will be a tremendous asset to the program.”
In her new role, Elfring will establish the KEYS D2L site each year, which enables staff to manage assignments and grading throughout the internship. She’ll also attend opening and closing KEYS summer events like intern orientation and the Research Showcase, allowing her to establish an initial connection with each new class of interns and celebrating their accomplishments at the end of the program. Elfring will also serve as a critical component of the annual advisory board and program evaluation meetings, providing her insight to help improve the program for years to come.
Refining and uplifting KEYS
According to Elfring, research is at the heart of science.
“I always tell my introductory biology students, ‘Biology is not the book, it’s the process that people went through to figure out the things that are in the book,’” she said.
She admires the KEYS program for its emphasis on not only providing a hands-on research experience to elevate concepts students are learning in the classroom, but also how it teaches critical thinking skills that can be applied to any type of problem solving.
Elfring also sees the value in the program as a recruitment tool for the university. By providing high school students with a university research experience, Elfring believes they can envision themselves as college students – likely contributing to the fact that the majority of the 75% of KEYS alumni who go on to pursue college in Arizona choose to do so at our university.
In her new role, Elfring will strive to help elevate the awareness of the program – across the university, in the community, and nationwide – by using her current UArizona positions to communicate KEYS impact and connect with potential key stakeholders.
“People recognize and appreciate programs like KEYS that bridge the university and community, but they aren’t yet high-profile enough,” she said. “If I in any way can raise the awareness of these programs or remind people of how important they are, then that’s fantastic.”
Though the 2020 and 2021 summer programs were held virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, Elfring was amazed by the adaptability of the program.
“It's really nice that when something dramatic like a pandemic happens, there’s a well-designed structure in place that is so solid yet still flexible enough to adapt,” she said.
Accessibility to KEYS increased because the current and previous programs were conducted remotely, enabling more students from outside of Tucson to participate because they didn’t have to travel to or live in Tucson for seven weeks. As faculty of record, Elfring hopes to continue the virtual component in some capacity in the years to come to lessen barriers to accessibility.
According to Elfring, program assessment is highly important because it provides information that can be used to make decisions about impact and therefore help to define resource allocation. Drawing upon her expertise in course and program evaluation, Elfring also plans to expand the already extensive annual KEYS program evaluation by comparing the KEYS programs to similar summer research programs nationwide.
About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, data and computational science, and basic science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, innovative diagnostics and devices, promising new therapies, and improved food sustainability.
About the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF)
The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 in 2001 continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research and innovation at the University of Arizona, where initiatives and projects are carefully chosen to align with areas of state and national need. Over the past 20 years of TRIF, over $50M has been invested in building critical facilities and research services that UArizona is leveraging today to respond to the world’s greatest scientific mysteries. TRIF resources are also instrumental in funding events, programs and grants that promote STEM education, research and literacy.