Project CRYSTAL (Colleagues Researching with Young Scientists: Teaching And Learning): A Scientific Outreach Program for Middle School Students

Hazel Holden, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Project CRYSTAL, established in 2009, is an outreach program specifically designed to provide highly motivated middle school students the opportunity to pursue biochemical research in a state-of-the-art laboratory. Each year four students entering eighth grade from a local middle school are selected to participate in the yearlong project. For both the fall and spring semesters at the University of Wisconsin, these middle schoolers come to the laboratory each Tuesday and spend approximately 1.5 hours in discussions and working at the bench with graduate student mentors. The discussion material spans the range from basic inorganic chemistry to organic chemistry to biochemistry, and it is presented at an age-appropriate level. By the time these students leave in May and enter high school they already understand the central dogma of biology, they have a firm concept about the differences between proteins and DNA and sugars, and they understand such processes as cloning and X-ray crystallography. It has proven to be a “win-win” situation for everyone involved. The graduate students develop their teaching skills, which serves them well as they begin to convey complex concepts to the general population. The middle schoolers are given a unique opportunity to view cutting edge research at the bench level. Indeed, many of the past participants are now pursuing science-related careers. Finally, the middle school teachers who accompany these students to Project CRYSTAL meetings take important lessons back into their classrooms. Details concerning the program will be described including plans to expand the program to other research laboratories. 

Poster link