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Grant brings real science to City Heights students

Clark Middle School students are carrying out real life science experiments from inside their classroom

Clark Middle School students are carrying out real life science experiments from inside their classroom

City Heights middle school students are performing experiments only dreamed about by real scientists just 20 years ago thanks to the Salk Institute. While seventh graders may not appreciate just how “gigantic” that is, according to Monroe Clark Middle School science teacher James King, the significance is not lost on the teachers.

With help from a Price Philanthropies annually recurring grant, the Salk Institute has been bringing its mobile science laboratory to Clark since 2004. The inspiration for the mobile lab, came interestingly enough, from the O.J. Simpson trial.

Dr. Ellen Potter, the Director of Education Outreach for Salk, was disappointed at how misunderstood DNA was at the time. The jury, public, and even prosecutors didn’t seem to understand the basic elements of DNA, or at least, how to explain it. Around the same time Jurassic Park was a huge movie hit. In the movie scientists extracted dinosaur DNA from fossils and recreated living dinosaurs at a theme park. Potter says the movie did a better job of explaining DNA than O.J.’s prosecutors did. The author of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton, was a post-doctoral fellow at Salk in 1969.

As a PhD in neurobiology, Potter has a keen understanding of DNA and as the outreach director for Salk, has the mission and means to educate the public about it. She came up with the idea, in collaboration with the San Diego County Office of Education, to bring DNA understanding into the classroom at no cost to students or districts. Middle school students were chosen based on research that shows that is the age when scientific curiosity wanes.

Working side by side with middle school science teachers, Potter developed a three day curriculum that brings real world scientists, biotechnology professionals, PhD candidates, retired science professors, and other science enthusiasts into the classroom to engage middle school students in the understanding of science, in particular DNA.

The first day of the curriculum involves observation of physical mutations of fruit flies. The second day, students extract DNA from wheat using soap and rubbing alcohol. The third day, the students learn “Gel electrophoresis,” a technique for separating fragments of DNA based on size.

The sessions last just one period each, about an hour. Instruction is performed in the classroom using equipment provided by Salk. Because of the enormous amount of enthusiasm from the science community, there can be as many as six volunteer scientists in the classroom at any one time with 30-35 middle school students.

“The kids are like, wow, these are scientists?” King says of the reaction his students have when seeing young, often female, real-life professionals walk into the room. “It makes them more aware that could be them” someday.

Inspiring the scientists of tomorrow is not the main goal of the science lab, according to Potter.

“Our society needs a community who understands scientific literature.”

The reasons are many. DNA is often used as evidence in trials. Doctors may discuss DNA with patients to explain hereditary diseases. Politicians may vote on spending measures, such as stem cell research, that affects the science community’s ability to find new cures.

Potter has discovered that the mobile science lab isn’t just educating youth about science. It’s educating scientists about new ways to understand and communicate their research.

“I hear from scientists that they come back from teaching and say ‘I forgot that science is so much fun.’”

“You get lost in the data,” Potter says. Teaching youth forces scientists to take a step back and look at the big picture. “What is the phenomena you’re trying to explain?” Experience has shown Potter that scientists are more effective in the lab when they are able to explain what they are doing on a level the community can understand.

The impact of the mobile lab has a lasting effect. Dona Mapston, lead instructor for the mobile science lab and a former high school biology teacher, says an independent evaluation in 2011 showed students who had participated in the three day lab at Monroe Clark had better attitudes and higher science comprehension than their eleventh grade peers at Hoover High, who hadn’t participated in the program.

To increase the number of students reached, Salk is looking at ways to scale and replicate the program. Currently it serves 2,500 youth at 21 middle schools throughout San Diego County on a first come first serve basis. Because of Price’s grant, every Monroe Clark Middle School student in the seventh grade has participated in the program since 2004. Beginning next year, the program will be taught to eighth graders to conform to common core standards.

As part of the transition to eighth grade, Salk will evaluate a pilot program at Clark that trains middle school science teachers to be lead instructors of the three day DNA curriculum using kits supplied by Salk. The full program will go to Wilson Middle School, also in City Heights, instead.

If the pilot proves successful, Potter’s dream to “make sure more students have access to discovery,” may come true.

Monroe Clark seventh graders learn how to extract DNA with the help of science professionals from the Salk Institute.

Monroe Clark seventh graders learn how to extract DNA with the help of science professionals from the Salk Institute.

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