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Jell-O Brains and DNA: High School Students Launch Innovative STEM Program

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The following guest post is by Roy Rinberg, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. and an incoming freshman at New York University. He is co-founder of Project Building Excitement for Science and Technology (BEST), an afterschool program for junior high school students.

Project BEST Jello Brains

Project BEST students dissect "Jell-O brains" to remove fruit slices that represent tumors. Students do quantitative and qualitative tests on the brain before and after the dissection to see how well they did.

My love of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education has been with me since birth. I grew up with a physicist for a father and an engineer for a mother, which is another way of saying that I had no choice but to love STEM.

Not only was the importance of STEM education deeply ingrained in me at a young age, I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by passionate students and teachers during my high school career. In this dynamic environment, I became excited about learning how the world works. But more importantly, I was drawn to learning about how to convert ideas in my brain into real, tangible objects that could be used in today’s world.

Throughout my life, the people around me have been genuinely interested in science and engineering. This has created scientific opportunities for me that I only recently realized are truly unique. Without the continued guidance and the many opportunities I have been able to pursue, my enthusiasm for STEM would have dwindled.

I always knew that I wanted to give others the same chance to become engaged in STEM that I had been given. During my sophomore year, my friend Parth Chopra approached me with the idea to create an organization to help excite students about STEM. I eagerly jumped onboard with three of my peers: Robert Young, Nikhil Garg and Dhruv Gaba.

Together, we cofounded the non-profit organization Project Building Excitement for Science and Technology (BEST). Project BEST’s goal is simple: to excite and inspire middle school students to become actively involved in science and technology. We see that in many classrooms students are merely taught facts and formulas. They become desensitized to the engaging aspects of STEM disciplines, as they are encouraged to memorize information only for the sake of passing tests.

In this increasingly technological world, although people are becoming better at using technology, there appears to be a trend that fewer people understand it. Project BEST attempts to fight this problem by giving students interactive experiences in an effort to reduce apprehension and ignite interest in STEM topics.

Project BEST organizes free, biweekly, hour-long sessions at 17 middle school chapters in Virginia, Kansas, and, soon, New Jersey. We base our lessons off of three pillars: Knowledge, Discovery and Experience. We start with a short presentation on the STEM topic, then help students discover the topic for themselves through a hands-on activity, and finally discuss potential applications for how the subject fits into their lives.

For example, we have a session on magnetorheological fluids, which change phase from liquid to solid when in the presence of a magnetic field. The instructors, who are all high school students, start by teaching middle schoolers about states of matter, the types of mixtures of solids and liquids, and how magnetic fields work. For the Discovery portion, instructors give students cups, iron filings, and vegetable oil and show them how to make their own simple versions of MR fluids. Then, using magnets and spoons, students manipulate the fluid and explore its physical properties. Finally, in the Experience section, students learn how MR fluids are used in transportation and in the military and try to come up with their own applications.

We have created over 30 different sessions that focus on topics ranging from bridge building to DNA bases. In the DNA unit, students look at the science behind forensics as they deduce “suspects” based on DNA evidence and learn about the relationship between genotypes and phenotypes.

What started with a single chapter at a local middle school, now reaches 500 students per month and is growing rapidly. By the start of the 2014-2015 school year, we expect to have 25 chapters that  reach more than 800 students per month.

Next fall, I will attend New York University (NYU), where I will study physics and computer science. I hope to continue working with programs like Project BEST in New York City. I believe that we need to change our attitude toward STEM education by making it more accessible to everyone. In particular, we need to focus on targeting middle school students who are still easily impressionable and open-minded, but are already capable of grasping interesting and complex concepts. We need to show people at a young age that STEM is exciting and that we should not be afraid of it.

Excitement can be contagious, if we allow it to be.

Visit www.theprojectbest.org to learn more about Project BEST.

About the Author: Anna Kuchment is a Contributing Editor at Scientific American and a staff science writer at The Dallas Morning News. She was previously a reporter, writer and editor with Newsweek magazine. She is also author of “The Forgotten Cure,” about bacteriophage viruses and their potential as weapons against antibiotic resistance. Follow on Twitter @akuchment.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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