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Reaching Out

The United States has a science literacy problem. Can university scientists help?

October 2009--When Rhoda Alani joined the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine faculty 10 years ago, she was given a laboratory that overlooked the struggling East Baltimore neighborhood below, a perspective that she calls “eye opening.” And as she’d leave her lab at the day’s end, get into her car and drive away with the doors locked, she began to think about how disconnected she was from the neighborhood she left behind, which she knew was struggling with drugs, crime and underperforming schools.

“I started thinking about what we can do to help,” says Alani, “and it really translated into, what do we do well here and how can we give back to the kids in this community,” says Alani, a melanoma researcher and oncologist, and associate professor of Oncology and Molecular Biology and Genetics.

That desire gave rise in 2001 to Community Science Day, now an annual event coordinated by the Office of Community Services in which Baltimore elementary school students visit a dozen different labs at the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences (IBBS) and the Cancer Center to watch science presentations and participate in hands-on activities. 

Since then, IBBS faculty, working with the Office of Community Services, have added two other components to what is now called the Community Science Education Program: an annual science fair for elementary school students that is judged by faculty and other scientists, and a free one-week summer science camp for elementary school students.

In addition, many IBBS faculty participate in a variety of other science outreach projects. Some, for instance, mentor high school students who want experience working in a research lab, through such programs as the Ingenuity Project, a Baltimore-based accelerated math and science program.

What kind of payoff such programs have isn’t always easy to gauge. One impetus for science outreach is an effort to improve science literacy among U.S. school children. In an international study three years ago, American 15-year-olds ranked 24th out of 57 countries in science and 32nd in math. Can university-based outreach help to improve those rates and, possibly, inspire more students to pursue science careers? Or are the most significant contributions less measurable, such as fostering better relationships with the community?

 “That’s the $64,000 question,” says Kaye Storm, director of the Stanford Office of Science Outreach. Many research universities sponsor some type of community science outreach, a broad list of activities that includes science camps, internships that give teachers a chance to work in a lab and programs that place scientists in classrooms to teach a weekly science course. But there have been few good studies published that evaluate the benefits and effectiveness of these programs, says Storm. Some programs, she adds, lend themselves more to evaluation than others. There may be no way to measure the impact of a one-day event.

Some universities, however, have started to review the effects of their more extensive outreach programs. One of the most extensive studies comes out of the 22-year-old Stanford Youth Medical Science Program. Each summer, 24 low-income high school students who belong to an underrepresented minority group participate in the five-week residential program. They attend an anatomy lab, work as a hospital apprentice intern, conduct a research project, and receive mentoring from faculty and staff, as well as graduate and medical students. Every student who has participated in the program has gone on to college, and overall, 84 percent of participants earn a college degree (compared to a 28 percent rate nationwide), results that program leaders published in May in the Journal of Science Education and Technology.

At Hopkins, outreach leaders are preparing to evaluate the impact of the science day, fair and camp. “We have been keeping the names of students who participated for the past couple of years, and we are still working on what it is we will track—test scores, high school performance, graduation rates, future study in college, or other factors,” says Margaret Strong, a senior research technician in Molecular Biology and Genetics who manages the Community Science Education Program. She and her colleagues are hoping to recruit a statistician to design the study, and they are also working closely with Baltimore City school officials.

Continuing support for the programs and for future activities will require evidence of a track record, and Strong and her colleagues have an abundance of ideas for new outreach efforts. They would like eventually to expand the science camp to include middle school students, to introduce a robotics component through a nonprofit organization called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST), and possibly to get involved in teacher development.

But the group has received no shortage of accolades for their work so far—from Dean/CEO Edward Miller and other administrators and faculty who have volunteered for the programs, as well as from parents and student participants. Strong and her colleagues have received an especially robust endorsement for the hands-on philosophy of their outreach activities. Children attending the camp have gathered forensic evidence and worked with police forensic biologists to solve crime scenarios. They have also watched demonstrations of nylon making, made slime, and made and eaten their own ice cream.

The camp and other outreach activities for younger students don’t necessarily teach kids a volume of scientific knowledge, says biophysicist Jie Xiao, who launched the science camp, in part, to fulfill a “broader impact” requirement of a National Science Foundation grant. Instead, “we want children to feel that doing science is lots of fun. If children are exposed to science at an early age, they can learn that science is not something for nerds or geeks, but can relate to their everyday lives. Then maybe they’ll consider it for a career.”

The programs may also accomplish something more elusive, adds Alani—helping to break the town-gown barrier. When she meets with children during Science Day, she always asks them what they think goes on at Hopkins. “Many children have told me, ‘They take people and do experiments on them,’” she says. “Our hope is that programs like science day help dissolve those fears, so that rather than see us as a great big monster in the neighborhood, we’re seen as a partner.”

 –Melissa Hendricks

Below is a partial list of organizations offering high school students research opportunities in Johns Hopkins labs:

The Center Scholars Program—Funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute in an effort to increase minority presence in the genome sciences at the Ph.D. level. Contact Vicky Schneider.

The Johns Hopkins Internship in Brain Sciences Program—Sponsored by the Department of Neurology for underrepresented minority students. Contact Amanda Brown.

The Ingenuity Project—An accelerated math and science program for Baltimore City middle and high school students. Details: 410-662-8665.

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