Game changer


Above: Dr. Natalie Kuldell (second from right), president of BioBuilder, meets with teachers at MIT. PHOTO COURTESY BIOBUILDER

The Niswonger Foundation’s $8 million plan to revolutionize STEM education

by Scott Robertson

It started with word from the U.S. Department of Education that $185 million in grants would be awarded in December 2020 to school districts, higher education institutions and not-for-profit organizations to provide professional development opportunities to teachers of high needs students. In Greeneville, Tenn., the Niswonger Foundation saw the call for grant applications as something more than just an opportunity to train teachers. So, the foundation put together a proposal with partners from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute to the University of Alabama at Huntsville to East Tennessee State University, and more.

When, on Dec.15, the grants were announced by then Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Niswonger Foundation grant application had netted $8 million in federal funds over five years (with an $800,000 match to be raised by the foundation) and was ranked the top STEM proposal received.

Scott Niswonger, founder of the foundation, said, “It had to be one of the strongest grant applications ever considered by the U.S. Department of Education.”

“This grant is a game changer when you look at the portfolio of STEM education tools the Niswonger Foundation is taking to 21 school districts and touching the lives of 57,000 students in a pretty dramatic way,” said David Golden, East Tennessee State University (ETSU) College of Business and Technology Allen and Ruth Harris Chair of Excellence and a member of the foundation board. “I don’t think anything like this is being done anywhere else in the United States.”


The Rural Tennessee STEM LD (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Learning Design) proposal put forth by the foundation will train teachers throughout northeast Tennessee. But, that’s just the start. The training and professional development the teachers in northeast Tennessee receive through the STEM LD-funded programs will qualify them to teach classes ranging from cybersecurity to synthetic biology to next-generation engineering.

Students in most of the schools served by the grant-funded programs would never have had the opportunity to learn those subjects without the foundation’s involvement.

One key to the foundation’s successful application was the fact that the foundation had sought out the top professional developers in each field to train northeast Tennessee’s educators, said Nancy Dishner, Niswonger Foundation president and CEO.

“The list of experts who will be on board for this work creates an unprecedented opportunity for students in this region,” Dishner said.

Purdue University’s Purdue Polytechnic Institute will offer expertise in curriculum design in engineering technology, said Dr. Greg Strimel. “We can help teachers teach socially relevant technology and engineering concepts within their middle and high school classrooms and develop more up-to-date career pathways in some of the traditional manufacturing, construction and transportation type areas. We can help move them into the next generations of those fields.”

The BioBuilder Foundation, located at MIT, will introduce students to synthetic biology, a subject only offered at Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett High School (DB) until now. Rewriting the genetic code is a far cry from wood shop and home ec, but it’s exactly what high school students who study synthetic biology are doing, said Dr. Natalie Kuldell, president of BioBuilder.

“We have high school students reprogramming cells in BioBuilder,” Kuldell said. “For instance, the normally very stinky smelling bacteria that exists in your gut can be reprogrammed to smell like a sweet banana. Those cells are then used in a laboratory to be detectors of other things. Imagine a carbon monoxide detector – carbon monoxide is an odorless gas – but when these reprogramed cells detect it, they give out a strong banana smell.”

Students who learn synthetic biology can go on to become entrepreneurs or can catch on with some of the most recognizable companies in the world, Kuldell said. “You might have heard of the Burger King Whoppers made not from beef but from soy. They smell and taste like meat. That’s because the DNA from a blood protein that makes that smell and taste can be moved into a soy plant to create a burger with similar mouth-feel, smell and taste. And, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Moderna vaccine for COVID. Moderna was founded as a synthetic biology company.

“For the economic ecosystem of the region, this is the field that will be the foundational technology for the new century,” Kuldell continued. “We’re in a world right now where biology is center stage, right? The ability to scale up and deploy biology to the benefit of society is tremendous, so there are a tremendous number of both large and startup companies who are in this field to engineer organisms to solve the challenges society faces.”


Professional development in cybersecurity will be provided through a partnership with the University of Alabama-Huntsville. Jesse Hairston, a research engineer at UA-H, said, “There is a very large deficit in the number of cybersecurity workers actually in the workforce. But we have this untapped talent in rural communities with these students who could certainly do the work if only they were given the opportunity to learn how.

“The purpose of this is to make sure that not only do we have activities for those students to engage their interest, but to make sure the teachers actually have the students in their classrooms and are well-equipped to teach them cybersecurity even if they’re not specializing in that area. Cybersecurity isn’t just for people who want to do it as a career. It’s for anyone who wants to protect themselves and their information.”
Other partners include the ETSU math, epidemiology, graphic design and computer science programs; STREAMWORKS; Marine Advanced Technology in Education and “If I had a hammer.”

The ETSU Research Corporation, headed by Golden, will also be a partner. “We could focus on BioBuilder and the development of 21st century skills through the platform of synthetic biology. You can look at computational science with Northern Alabama. You can see the very practical applications that Streamworks has shown over the last couple of years can be done with students through robot drone leagues and MATE underwater robotics. To put this all together in one package is tremendous. To implement some of this requires a partner beyond those platforms, though, who can provide a centralized convening space for professional development, and the ETSU Research Foundation will play a role there,” Golden said. “BioBuilder, for instance, requires teachers to attain a certain level of proficiency. Heretofore, teachers had to travel to Cambridge, Mass., to attain that. Through the ETSU Research Foundation, northeast Tennessee teachers will be able to do that here in the region at ETSU’s Valleybrook facility.”

The Niswonger Foundation visited Cambridge in Dec. 2019 to learn more about synthetic biology and what BioBuilder was already doing with the teachers at DB. “That foundation is the regional leader in building a coalition that really has advanced interdisciplinary education opportunities for students there,” Kuldell said.

Scott Niswonger and Dr. Nancy Dishner PHOTO BY EARL NEIKIRK

That coalition includes 19 public school system directors from across northeast Tennessee. “We have spent 20 years building collaboration,” Niswonger said. “We ask them to share educational best practices and they do. It’s amazing to see how closely they work together. We really are the envy of almost everyone because we get 19 directors of schools to collaborate on everything from calendars to curriculum.”

Added Dishner, “These school systems at a point had to decide that the whole really is greater than the part, so if we work together, we will all be better off. That’s why we’re running four federal grants right now. We couldn’t have done that without that spirit of cooperation.”
Kuldell said she has been impressed by the Niswonger Foundation’s desire to use programs like BioBuilder to create greater prosperity throughout northeast Tennessee. “There is a real appetite for being regional leaders,” she said. “There is a hope to develop a regional economic sector around this field of synthetic biology and we have expanded the BioBuilder community to now include higher ed including ETSU and the community colleges.

The partnership between the Niswonger Foundation and the ETSU Research Corporation in particular has the potential to create long-term benefits for the regional economy, Niswonger said. “As the (STEM LD) program matures, we’ll be able to bring some of those young people with these impressive skill sets into the ETSU Research Corporation to begin all sorts of entrepreneurial efforts in biotech, for instance, and bring that economic impact into the region.

“I’m looking at this 10 to 20 years down the line as a real game changer for Upper East Tennessee and southwest Virginia in the type of jobs that we’re able to offer and the type of business that we are able to attract,” Niswonger said.

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