October 2011

Fostering diversity in science and public science literacy

Bartlett adds, “Kids who love science are viewed as nerds, and Summer Focus shows that nerds who work really hard get degrees and ultimately get very good jobs. I don’t think I even appreciated that as much at the time, but given today’s economy, it’s big.”

Teaching Teams 

Jennifer N. Lynch, center, a graduate student in immunology and pathology, instructs Summer Focus participants Paris Guerin, left, and Cherise Gilmore in the proper use of a pipette. Guerin and Gilmore were among 12 attendees of the Research Boot Camp, a three-day course in lab techniques and safety offered by the university’s Young Scientist Program as a prelude to Summer Focus, an eight-week research internship.


During the school year, teams of YSP volunteers develop and lead inquiry-based, hands-on science modules to increase science literacy in nine different fields: anatomy, chemistry, ecology, evolution, forensics, genetics and genomics, microbiology, neuroscience, and physics. The volunteers present interactive activities in classrooms, after-school programs and community organizations.

One such example is a genetics demonstration of DNA extraction in which students use household items, including shampoo, rubbing alcohol, salt and cheesecloth, to isolate DNA from fruit. The students are excited to find that DNA, the “blueprint” they have read about in textbooks, is a tangible substance that they can isolate from living things.

St. Louis-area teaching team visits have expanded from 15 per year in 2001 (reaching about 350 students) to more than 60 per year in 2011 (reaching more than 1,000 students).

Rankin was first exposed to the Young Scientist Program at a genetics teaching team demo at her high school.

“The team leaders kept us engaged by asking many constructive questions related to the material,” she recalls. “The teaching teams allowed me to critically think through the logistics of any experiment.” The experience prompted her to apply for the Summer Focus program, in which she performed an independent research project on hybrid sterility in yeast.

Rankin is now a junior at Webster University majoring in biology with an emphasis on biotechnology. She plans to obtain a Ph.D. and start her own biotechnology company.

In addition to working with local schools, YSP volunteers bring teaching team demos to national scientific meetings to interact with fellow graduate students and engage high-school students in other areas of the country. The effectiveness of such activities in achieving scientific-concept learning is evaluated using pre- and post-surveys of participating students.

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