The cell biology lab in McCardell Bicentennial Hall is bustling with activity.
Ten students are working on an experiment, carefully laying thin glass cover slips over onion samples and inserting their slides into microscopes. Working in pairs, the students are examining the cell structure of the Allium cepa, a fairly basic experiment, unless you are a fifth grader. Which these students are.
“Now gently pick up your little cover slip, hold it with your tweezers, and carefully – don’t squeeze too tightly or it will break – put it down on the slide at an angle. Boys and girls, please watch me first. You put your finger there to hold the cover slip so it doesn’t slide, and then you slowly lower it into place so you don’t get any air bubbles.”
That’s Nancy Graham, and she’s the educational coordinator for the science outreach project—funded by a National Science Foundation grant—that has brought these 10-year-olds from Weybridge Elementary School to Bi Hall on this afternoon.
The visit from the Weybridge youngsters is the first step in what Assistant Professor of Biology Jeremy Ward sees as a long-term effort to expand the possibilities of science in the lives of Addison County children. Ward designed the project (“Toward the Genetics of Meiosis: Biology and Public School Science Outreach”), wrote the grant, and manages the endeavor.
In his application to the NSF, the Vermont native and Cornell University graduate expressed his belief that, “All children have the ability to learn and enjoy science. However, their engagement in science education often is limited, not by lack of aptitude or desire, but rather by lack of opportunity.”
Ward intends to create more opportunities for children to learn science because, as he says, “Kids do their best at the thing they love to do the most.” For him that “thing” is science, and the goal of the educational component of his five-year NSF grant is nothing less than “to help transform science education” in the region by imbuing youngsters with the love of science.
Today’s lab appears to be a huge success. Surrounded by beakers and flasks and sophisticated equipment like a spectrophotometer and a refrigerated centrifuge, the grade-school kids are conducting a real experiment in the same lab and with the same instruments used by Middlebury College students.
The whole experiment takes about an hour. Wearing lab aprons and rubber gloves, they examine a drop of water under a microscope and observe, well, nothing too exciting. Next they look at a thin onion section about three millimeters in diameter and observe the shape of the cells. Lastly they swab the insides of their mouths, transfer the sample to the slides, and examine human cells under the scopes. Then, without much prodding from the adults in the lab, the children discuss how their own cells differ from plant cells and how much bacteria they found in their own mouths.
More school visits are scheduled, and Ward is working with science educators in the Addison Central Supervisory Union to develop a basic curriculum in genomic biology. The NSF grant will also support research by public school teachers and create a portable molecular genetics-based teaching module, dubbed the “gene wagon,” that Ward and his Middlebury College undergraduates will take to public schools.