By Erin Weeks
Read the original story in the Independent Tribune.
Puckered lips and screwed-up faces quickly turned into wide-eyed smiles as lemons the students tasted hit their tongues sweet instead of sour.
Protein from a particular frozen berry they’d eaten minutes before altered their taste buds, the 12 middle and high schoolers learned, before delving more into the science of taste.
The select Kannapolis City Schools students spent Thursday, Feb. 18, participating in a whole range of hands-on experiments at the N.C. Research Campus during the N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute’s Scientist for a Day program. After exploring chemistry of food, the kids smashed a strawberry to extract DNA, grew bacteria from their saliva, peered through a 3D microscope and analyzed family genetics—all in the labs where real-world science happens every day.
“It’s a great opportunity, obviously, and I think it opens doors,” A.L. Brown High School junior Anahi Pena said. “You get to see exactly how these things work because on the outside you don’t know all this is going on in here. You wouldn’t know all of this was going on. So I think it’s a really great opportunity.”
Offering local students those hands-on experiences was exactly what Greenhouse Operations and Outreach Specialist Doug Vernon had in mind when he began the program late last year.
“When I was hired, I just said I really would like to see kids get in this building and be inspired, be encouraged, be honored, feel special for their interest in science,” he said. “Most of them are really good students, but our parameters were pick kids who are showing an interest in science, and let’s fuel that.”
Vernon started with a fourth- and sixth-grade event in November of 2015 and a second in early February, moving to the eighth-grade and high school level this time around. But no matter the age, he said the goal is to engage students in real-world science that professionals do on a regular basis.
“A lot of kids drive around, their families drive around, look at these buildings and are like, ‘I’ll never be in there,’ ” Vernon said. “And one of the things I tell them is you could be working here someday or a place like this. So I want it to be when they drive by an encouragement not an it’s not happening.”
The program takes 10 to 12 students into various labs throughout the research campus as scientists walk them through a variety of age-appropriate activities. Staff at the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab tested the middle and high schoolers’ standing jump ability and outlined some nutritional research they had completed. In a UNC-Charlotte and David H. Murdock Research Institute lab, the kids used three different types of microscopes to learn the basics of bioinformatics.
Each activity gave a glimpse into the cutting-edge research happening behind closed doors at the facility that students wouldn’t have had access to on a typical field trip or tour—and the bonus? They got to try it out themselves.
“We try to give them hands-on experiences, but what we do as a lab in high school is a far cry from seeing on a daily basis if I go and I get my undergrad or graduate degree from a college, what am I going to be doing?” A.L. Brown science teacher Trent Wharton said. “It’s not going to be sitting in the classroom with 30 students working at little tables. It’s going to be hands-on. It’s going to be this on a daily basis, so to see this could be my future, this could be where I’m going, I think is worth its weight in gold.”
Not to mention the initiative helps forge relationships between Kannapolis City Schools and the Research Campus, which Vernon said was invaluable. As a teacher of 29 years at Northwest Cabarrus High School before coming on at the Plants for Human Health Institute, Vernon said he was no stranger to how important those ties are for educators, and he added they help his organization, as well.
“I always feel like the connections that are outside the classroom are really important for students to know what’s really going on in industry, in small business, in research facilities,” he said. “Where does this stuff lead to that you’re preaching to me every day? These kids seem to all have an interest in science, and I hope some of them take this as a this is where I want to go.”
The students themselves seemed actively engaged in the different activities, treating it as the learning experience it was and asking probing questions rather than just taking advantage of a day off school.
“I was mostly excited about learning about the fitness and the project that we did where we had to extract the strawberry DNA,” eighth-grader Dwana Dowling said. “It was interesting. I like knowing the building blocks of the world like the periodic table, cell structure and biochemistry.”
It wasn’t lost on them, either, how much they could glean from this experience rather than from a lecture in science class.
‘I learn different things that I’m not going to learn in school here because this is hands-on, and in school they’re just teaching you the basics of everything,” Anahi said. “This is more hands-on and visual.”
The Plants for Human Health Institute will offer two more Scientist for a Day sessions this year—one in April for middle and high school students and one in May for fourth- and sixth-graders—but Vernon said he planned on continuing the initiative in future years, as well.
“We’ll just evaluate and see what we’re able to do,” he said. “The feedback from the schools has been overwhelmingly positive. Man, kids loved it. It’s great. I got a thank-you note this week from a kid last week that said, ‘I want to be a scientist now.’ We had one the first one back in November, ‘This was the best day of my life.’ Those are pretty strong statements.”