What can you do for science?

ASBMB seed grant recipient runs a science night for a Texas town

“What was the first thing that got you interested in science?” Teresa Evans asked the volunteers who joined her science outreach program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “Every single person would have some very vivid memory of what it was,” she says, and they all wanted “to give that experience to another generation.”

Teresa Evans Teresa Evans

Evans, who directs the Office of Career Development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Science at UTHSCSA, established Teen Meetings Outside the Box to provide graduate students and postdoctoral fellows the opportunity to engage underserved students. With funds from the ASBMB’s Outreach Seed Grant program, TeenMOB held its first outreach event, a science night for Natalia, a rural town 45 minutes outside of San Antonio, in October.

The group set up eight booths at Natalia High School. Each booth focused on a specific area of the health sciences and an age range — elementary, middle or high school. UTHSCSA trainees, professors and local K–12 teachers staffed the booths.

“We were asked to put the booths and the science content in a way that could be absorbed by all of the community,” says Evans. “So we brought things like organs from the pathology department. They got to see diseased and healthy organs. We had pathologists, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, nursing students talking about what that means and why healthy living is important to prevent these kinds of disease. Then we had more interactive booths where they did worksheets and problem solving, learning about how biology and chemistry affect the human body and our health.”

The event was a huge success, Evans says. All told, 180 people came out: students, their parents and local residents. They ate dinner and participated in prize raffles.

To plan the event, Evans had partnered with teachers from the Voelcker Biosciences Teacher Academy, a program at UTHSCSA that offers curriculum resources and professional development to science, technology, engineering and math teachers in the San Antonio area. She also worked closely with a science teacher and VBTA member from Natalia High School, Anjali Dandona. For 2015, Evans plans to build more of these relationships with teachers in the San Antonio area through her collaborations with the VBTA and run outreach events at their schools.

Evans is a fervent believer in outreach. “I came from a rural community,” she says. “And I went to a great school, but the exposure to the diversity of what science has to offer wasn’t there. I often think about my hometown and my community, and I see it increasingly important as a scientist myself to share my knowledge and to share my journey with the generations after me.”

While a graduate student, Evans participated in science outreach and communication programs and joined the ASBMB’s public outreach committee. She then applied for and won the outreach seed grant to start TeenMOB.

We talked more about how she got the science night running and what made it work. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did you get this idea to do a science night outreach?

It stemmed from my collaboration with the teacher in Natalia. I realized that in order to pull off a program like this, where you’re interfacing with a K–12 school, you really need to have somebody on the ground, at the school, who’s passionate about this.

When I met Anjali, I could tell she would go above and beyond her classroom — she’s done so in the past — so I asked her how we could help. I told her about the funding I had received from the ASBMB and said that the funding was to do outreach for K–12 schools with our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

We started out with the idea of doing a teen science café, which is more of a journal-club setting, but based on what Anjali was telling me, that wouldn’t fit so well because of where her school is located, so far outside the city, and the actual travel for her students. She suggested having a science night, because she had wanted to do something like that for many years but didn’t have the resources to do so.

We brainstormed and came up with this model, brought in as many people and experts as we could, and made the program around what Anjali was looking for. And that’s the plan moving forward — to maintain that relationship with the teacher and to build the program around what the school is looking for.

Do you feel like the students were responsive to these booths?

Absolutely! We really tried to have the booths be focused at different age groups. The five-year-old students loved making the brain cap. You colored this brain, and you created a cap that you wore on your head that showed you where all the different parts of the brain were, and they loved those. There were all these little kids running around wearing these brain caps.

But then the high-school students enjoyed having a longer conversation at the table with the organs or, for example, another table that talked about blood pressure and how blood pressure is tested, what that means and the implications. I was actually quite surprised with the parents. The parents were very eager to have their blood pressure taken and to have a conversation about the things a physician might talk to you about during a visit.

Also, it was informative to have the Voelker Bioscience Teacher’s Academy right there with us graduate-level trainees. So for myself, I’ve been a student for many years but never a teacher in a classroom at this level. Hearing a teacher say, ‘OK, this is more for elementary students, and you need to do this to hit your high school students,’ I think, was what made it such a great success. And it was great to see our graduate students and postdocs learning from the teachers about how you need to communicate your science differently to each one of these populations.

When reaching out to elementary-school students and high-school students, what concepts do you focus on?

For the elementary-school students, we try to do things that are very hands-on and tactile – a lot of coloring and a lot more animated. The people at that booth were getting down on their knees and showing them images and being visual, remembering that they needed to stay at the 50,000-foot view and not get down into the weeds.

With the high-school students, the communications were more specific, but also we coached our trainees to talk to the high-school students about careers in science. Do you want to go into a career in science, what kind, have you thought about college – trying to really let them know that the people in the room are from a diverse scientific career background and science doesn’t just mean you will be a medical doctor. There are many options.

What about middle school?

So for the middle-school students, we tried to choose activities that had a little more mass in them and a little more of a game component. We would talk a little bit about careers but in a broader sense, getting them to think about how there are more opportunities out there than just being a doctor but not so much what college they wanted to go to.

It was fascinating. In the community, for them, San Antonio is very far away. When you say, “Do you want to move?” they’re like, “Oh, I don’t know.” So we wanted to help them see what’s out there for them.

What do you think the grad students and postdocs got from this experience?

So the idea was that, first, they have the experience of communicating varying types of science, not just their background, to a broad audience. Second, our institution is a medical institution; we don’t have undergraduates here. This opportunity provides them with the experience of teaching to see if that’s something they’re interested in. It also gets them plugged into the K–12 community through the networking we did in Natalia and our VBTA teachers.

I was also surprised to see that many of our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows were really doing this to give back. It was giving them that opportunity to spark scientific interest in students, in parents, in the community, in a way that was provided to them when they were young.

So your initial idea was to do an outreach event, and after you got the seed grant, it started evolving and you reached out to the teaching academy?

Right. And honestly, as a graduate student, one of the most influential things that I did was join the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee. The individuals on that committee are so diverse and so enthusiastic about science outreach in many different avenues and genres. I would sit at this table with leaders in science outreach, and they introduced me to the outreach seed grant program. And I was like, “This is something that we got to do. It needs to be brought to San Antonio.” And so that was really the catalyst.

Maggie Kuo Maggie Kuo was an intern at ASBMB Today when she wrote this story. Today she is a writer at the American Physiological Society. She earned her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.