Best of 2009
Rolling Lab Proves Science Rocks
Science Adventure Lab hits the road to inspire careers in science.
As president of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Jim Hendricks, PhD, used to worry about recruiting the science workforce of the future, but he’s much more hopeful since the institute’s Science Adventure Lab hit the road.
The Science Adventure Lab is a rolling laboratory/classroom that introduces the world of science to students in the fourth through eighth grades. The custom-built mobile lab began visiting schools throughout Washington in fall 2009 and is on pace to visit 60 schools and educate about 6,000 children by the end of the school year.
Through hands-on experiments, students learn about the connection between science and health, and about the connection between science and a career — which is what drove Hendricks to conceive of the Science Adventure Lab in the first place.
The growth of Seattle’s life sciences sector has created a demand for workers with science backgrounds that outstrips the supply. “Right now, we have 100 faculty-level scientists at the institute, and 500 people who support them, so the need for support staff is huge,” Hendricks says.
The best way to expand the workforce, he says, is to turn more students on to science before they enter high school. That’s why the Science Adventure Lab targets students in elementary and middle school, before they decide science is “too hard” and turn to other things. The approachable PhD-level lead instructors provide positive role models that students can relate to.
“It’s hard to predict what fourth and fifth graders will end up doing, but if we don’t begin letting them know science is interesting, relevant and accessible now, they’re probably not going to consider careers in science later,” Hendricks says.
We want to show them that science is cool ... because really, it is." ~Amanda Jones, PhD
The 45-foot long Science Adventure Lab is one of only two mobile science education labs on the West Coast — and the only one in the country operated by a children’s hospital. Featuring seven workstations and four video screens, it brims with some of the same equipment — microscopes, centrifuges, gel electrophoresis rigs and UV photodocumentation systems — that are used at the research institute. “They’re using stuff in the Science Adventure Lab I didn’t see until college,” Hendricks says.
The Science Adventure Lab targets schools and communities that lack the resources to provide strong science education programs. There is no charge to schools for a visit from the lab.
The experiments that students perform are chosen from a list by their classroom teacher and are designed to integrate with and enrich their school science curriculum. One experiment asks students to analyze the sugar content of various beverages. Another involves collecting their own cheek cells and then isolating the DNA from inside those cells.
The experiments advance Children’s goal of helping children stay healthy by educating them about the science behind how the body works. They also demystify science and show students that science is not something only certain people do.
Each visit by the Science Adventure Lab includes a conversation with the students about the types of things a scientist might study, from dinosaurs to crime scenes to outer space. “We want to show them that there are more possibilities in the field of science than they could ever imagine,” says Amanda Jones, PhD, who directs the research institute’s Health and Science Education Outreach Program.
While Hendricks dreamed up the Science Adventure Lab, Jones fleshed out the details and is one of two main instructors along with Mark Ruffo, PhD, who manages the program.
“Students may not remember everything they learned in the Science Adventure Lab, but they will remember they used this or that piece of equipment and that it was interesting,” says Jones. “We want to show them that science is cool, because, really, it is.”