May 28, 2004

Partnership with city schools turns youngsters into scientific sleuths

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Bruce Appel, left, points out zebrafish to ENCORE student Brennan McNally, center, and onlookers in a lab tour that was part of the PI2 celebration last week. Photo by Anne Rayner

Partnership with city schools turns youngsters into scientific sleuths

Left to right: Brianna Vassei, Kearsten Hatch and Aleeyah Guest perform the “Elizabeth Tweedie Rap” at the PI2 celebration last week.

Left to right: Brianna Vassei, Kearsten Hatch and Aleeyah Guest perform the “Elizabeth Tweedie Rap” at the PI2 celebration last week.

A group of young Sherlocks put Vanderbilt scientists under the microscope through a semester-long program that ended in a celebration last week.

A partnership between the VUMC Program in Developmental Biology and Nashville Public School’s ENCORE program turned these third- and fourth-grade students into private investigators.

The child detectives were seeking to find answers to some of the most mind-boggling questions, like why in the world would anyone want to be a scientist? Just what are they doing in those labs? And do they really have lives outside of Vanderbilt?

Like some of the most exciting laboratory investigations, the student-sleuths were shocked by their results. They found that science was actually fun and interesting, lab experiments were “gross and cool,” and the Vanderbilt scientists were pretty normal people.

The program, PI2 (or Primary Investigator to Private Investigator), grouped 35 participating Developmental Biology faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and lab support staff with 600 gifted and talented third and fourth graders in the ENCORE program.

Christopher V.E. Wright, D.Phil., professor of Cell and Development Biology and vice chair of the department, helped develop the program in 2002 to bring the “magic of science” to the children.

“I think all of us realize that one of the most important things we need to do is get young people interested in science,” he said. “Through this program, we’ve been able to connect with the children and show them that science can be fun.”

This year’s method of reaching the children was an investigative writing project.

“The main objective of PI2 was to teach the students how to formulate and ask a series of questions about the many paths that can be taken to achieve a career in the sciences, and then to write a cohesive report about their findings,” said Kim Kane, coordinator of the Program in Developmental Biology and co-originator of the PI2 program.

The students, in groups of five, were given a Vanderbilt scientist to investigate. Provided with clues, such as the scientist’s curriculum vitae and physical clues about their research and personal lives, the students e-mailed a list of questions to their “subject.” When they received a response, the students drafted follow-up questions.

Some of the scientists even visited the children’s classrooms to answer questions. This was student Colleen Winslow’s favorite part of the program.

“When Bruce Carter [associate professor of Biochemistry] came to our school, he brought lamb brains,” she said. “He studies mice and hopes to find a solution to diseases.”

The experience was equally worthwhile for the scientists making the visit.

“I found the program very rewarding,” said Mary Kosinski, a graduate student in Developmental Biology. “The kids were so interested in what I study, and why it makes a difference. I loved the way they all wanted to ask me questions and were so excited to answer some of my questions…These kids were very bright and asked a lot of questions, which most good scientists do.”

Beth O’Shea, ENCORE program coordinator, said the PI2 program was an excellent experience for the children.

“The students have had a wonderful opportunity to engage in a partnership with the Vanderbilt scientists,” she said. “The program promotes awareness of the variety of fields of science and sparks interest in the areas. It has also shown the students that scientists are people, too.”

After interviewing, and sometimes meeting, their subjects, and with all of the evidence in hand, the students found a creative way to relay this information in writing.

Kearsten Hatch, Aleeyah Guest and Brianna Vassei, third-graders at Kingslane Elementary School, chose to write a rap about their “subject,” Elizabeth Tweedie, a graduate student in Developmental Biology. They performed the rap at the PI2 Celebration, which was held on Vanderbilt’s campus May 20.

The top detective team from each ENCORE site, about 50 children, along with their parents and teachers, were invited to the program’s concluding event, which included performances by some of the children, lab tours and refreshments.

Despite being “nervous on one side and excited on the other,” Hatch, Guest and Vassei’s performance went off without a hitch. They said the PI2 program was a lot of fun, and they learned a lot.

“We learned about mice, and how they use sick mice to [treat] diabetes,” Vassei said.

“And we learned that worms help us know about the nervous system,” Hatch added.

Stephen Von Stetina, a graduate student in Developmental Biology, said he was surprised by what the children learned, and admitted that communicating with them wasn’t the easiest task.

“It’s hard to communicate what we do to a college graduate who wasn’t a science major, let alone a group of 10-year-olds,” he said. “However, children have very open minds and haven’t developed a prejudice to science like many adults have. Therefore, they were willing to listen to what I had to say and soak it up like a room full of sponges. All in all, I was amazed at how much of my science they understood.”

This was the second year the Developmental Biology program has partnered with the ENCORE program to bring science to the students – and according to Wright, it has once again been successful. The program, he said, is getting children to think about a career in science.

This rang true for the girls from Kingslane Elementary School — the experience sparked their interest in becoming scientists.

“Yeah, I could do that,” Guest said. “But I don’t want to work with any blue crabs, or nasty two-headed frogs, or those gray, hairy mice.”