Young students get real-life lessons in science
Published: Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 3:09 p.m.
Some young science lovers got a rare opportunity to explore microscopic worlds this month.
Nineteen students, ages 10 to 15, spent part of their summer vacation in a microbiology lab at the University of Florida, learning about tiny microbes that have a huge impact on humans.
“It’s something you can’t see or hear,” but microbes are everywhere, said Arjun Panicker, 13.
The first summer microbiology apprenticeship program at UF was launched by Monika Oli, a professor in the microbiology and cell science department and UF’s current Teacher of the Year.
Oli, who has two children of her own, said there aren’t many opportunities for middle school-aged children to get laboratory experience, which might help draw them into science.
It’s important to capture their attention now.
“A lot of times, we lose students of that age group, especially girls,” she said.
The apprenticeship program was designed to pique students’ interest in science, but also to show the intersections of science with art, culture and society.
To help make those connections, Oli invited guests to speak to the students, including other microbiology professors, artists and local author Shelley Fraser Mickle.
Above all, the program aimed to teach students real-life lessons about science.
“It just can be a lot of fun to ask a question and find an answer,” Oli said.
For the last three weeks, the students learned about microbes and worked on their own research projects in a UF microbiology lab.
“They learn exactly what college students learn,” Oli said.
As part of that, students came up with college-level research projects.
Arjun, a rising eighth-grader at Lincoln Middle School, tested the effects of Crest toothpaste versus an herbal toothpaste containing a plant called neem.
Neem is used in other parts of the world for hygienic products. Arjun said his grandfather used the plant as toothpaste in India.
To test the efficacy of both products in eliminating bacteria, Arjun treated eggshells with E. coli bacteria, then brushed them with the toothpaste. He then swabbed each eggshell to test for bacterial colonies.
Arjun said he enjoyed working with bacteria and learning the technique for growing cultures.
“It also shows you that there’s a different world than our world,” he said.
The two youngest students in the group are children of UF microbiology faculty members.
Oli’s daughter Maya, 10, tested buttermilk and commercially produced and homemade kefir, a fermented milk drink, to see which had the highest amount of probiotics. “It’s really fun,” said the Williams Elementary fifth-grader.
Maya’s classmate at Williams, 10-year-old Emily King, is the daughter of another microbiology faculty member.
Instead of working with bacteria, she painted a watercolor of the anatomy of a rotifer, a microscopic animal.
“I’m not a really sciencey guy,” Emily said. “I kind of like art better.”
Six teacher assistants helped out with the program.
One was Zosia Caes, a rising Lincoln Middle eighth-grader who worked with Oli this year on a microbiology project for the science fair.
Oli invited her back to help show her peers the fun of studying microbiology.
Zosia, 13, said she was glad to share her love of science.
“It feels really good that I’m able to impart something to them,” she said.
UF nutritional sciences student and teaching assistant Carolyn Avila-Duran, 21, also works as a tutor for underserved children. She said the experience of working with such motivated young students during the apprenticeship program has been inspiring for her.
“It’s really different with these children,” she said. “It’s nice to be a part of it, and I’m hopeful that it will continue.”
Oli said she can’t see any reason why the program wouldn’t continue. A fee of $150 per student covered the cost of all the materials, and the microbiology department supports her mission, she said.
“It’s not just the science, it’s the social aspect,” she said.
Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.