What can you teach middle schoolers about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) using common objects like pieces of fruit and cell phone flashlights? According to grad students Taylor Gray and Christina Wicker, the latest research in molecular engineering.
Gray and Wicker, graduate students at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, recently presented Junior Science Cafés, half-hour sessions that teach Chicago-area middle schoolers about science and engineering using personal stories and hands-on activities.
The sessions, which this year take place virtually, are the culmination of a two-year science communication program in partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry. Graduate students at Pritzker Molecular Engineering train in intensive workshops to better understand how to convey their work to a broad audience and how to engage individuals with science and engineering.
“Molecular engineering is an emerging field, as new to middle school students today as computer science was to kids in the ‘70s,” said Laura Rico-Beck, educational training and outreach coordinator at PME. “Junior Science Cafés are really fantastic opportunities to introduce molecular engineering to the next generation of scientists to show how exciting, innovative, and accessible it is to them.”
The critical tool of DNA
Gray talked with her students about DNA, and how it can be used to create medicines for different diseases, including cancer. First, they discussed DNA as a concept. Then, they performed an experiment where they isolated DNA from bananas, so the students could see what DNA looks like.
Gray uses DNA as one of the tools in her research, which focuses on creating targeted cancer treatments that activate a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. To make these treatments, she makes proteins that can stick to tumors and not healthy tissue, and that process starts with extracting DNA.
Gray, now a Science Communications Fellow, said she wishes she had been able to participate in something like the Junior Science Café’s when she was younger, as she hadn’t pictured science as a potential career path until she was in college. She says by giving students more exposure to science, they have more opportunities to connect with the material and potentially see themselves as future scientists.
“I want students to come away with a notion of what a scientist can look like, and that they are real people and can come from lots of different backgrounds,” said Gray. “I also want them to see that science can be really fun, even though it can also be challenging at times.”
Bending the path of light
In her presentation, Wicker started the activity talking about everyday examples of light sources, such as the sun or a cell phone flashlight. From there, students explored how to change the path of light, and learned about total internal reflection in fiber-optic cable and how that is useful in telecommunications infrastructure.
As in all the capstone presentations, Wicker’s discussion related to her own research, in which she is working to develop devices that can be used to build quantum networks over fiber-optic cable.
Though Wicker wants to inspire people to work in science as a career, she also discussed with students how science is relevant in many aspects of life, regardless of career. At the end of the session, she talked with students about pursuits that people might not immediately associate with science, like cooking or gardening.
“By participating in outreach programs, I want to help challenge inaccurate perceptions that people may hold about scientists,” Wicker said. “I also want to spend time practicing communicating to a broader audience, because a lack of non-expert communication can make scientific disciplines inaccessible for those who want to get involved.”