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Have Lab, Will Travel

Remember the bookmobile-the friendly traveling emissary from the local library whose mission was to interest kids in reading by bringing books to them at school? Now two professors at Boston University are reviving the concept with an updated mission: to expose students to state-of-the-art laboratory techniques in biomedical sciences.

Toward this end, Connie Phillips, an assistant research professor with nearly two decades of experience teaching biology to undergraduates and high school students, and Carl Franzblau, associate dean for medical sciences and chair of the biochemistry department, are outfitting a mobile lab with all the equipment needed to conduct a full range of experiments in modern molecular biology and genetic engineering. Workstations in a 40-foot, custom-designed school bus with room for 20 students contain all the accoutrements found in a modern lab, from test tubes and pipettes to incubators and spectrophotometers. The mobile unit will travel to high schools and middle schools throughout the Boston area to augment the students’ biology classes.

“Our aim is to provide access to laboratory facilities and hands-on biotechnology learning otherwise unavailable to most school systems,” says Phillips. “We’re seeing an enormous gap between the type of equipment and techniques high-school students are normally exposed to and those used in modern research,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s just not practical to outfit all our public high schools with this kind of specialized and expensive equipment.”

Phillips and Franzblau’s mobile lab builds upon their overwhelming success in a similar effort called CityLab, a stationary facility at the Boston University School of Medicine that now serves as a fully equipped regional biotechnology resource for middle and high schools. Since it was founded in 1991, CityLab has increased its capacity to 50 students per day throughout the school year and is still booked a year in advance. So far more than 10,000 students and 1,000 teachers have visited the lab to participate in the day-long curriculum.

CityLab challenges students to solve mysteries by applying the concepts used in modern biology laboratories. In preparation for their visit, students are grouped into teams, presented with the mystery they will work to solve, and, with the aid of their teacher, offer preliminary ideas about the problems. When they reach the lab, they can apply the latest high-tech procedures to find the solution. In the “mystery of the crooked cell,” for instance, students, acting as medical researchers, determine whether their patient has sickle cell anemia by using electrophoresis, which separates red blood cells according to size in order to differentiate sickle cells from normal hemoglobin. In another module, the students find the perpetrator of a crime by using DNA fingerprinting techniques.

Phillips says the CityLab program grew out of summer workshops she and Franzblau offered in the late 1980s at Boston University School of Medicine to high-school science teachers who sought to update their knowledge of procedures in the fast-changing biotechnology field. The teachers were inspired by the workshops, Phillips says, but they “complained they had no place to teach the exciting things they were learning about. We wanted to respond to that need.”

By all accounts, however, the team didn’t realize how widespread the interest in their program would be. “We never expected the flood of inquiries from all over or the one-year waiting list despite our efforts to expand the program,” Franzblau says. So far, several area public schools have lauded CityLab, and the nearby Cambridge and Quincy public schools have made the program an official part of their seventh- and eighth-grade curricula. CityLab has also spawned satellite programs around New England and as far away as Alaska and Glasgow, Scotland.

Unfortunately, though, as Phillips notes, even organizing a day-long field trip is beyond the capacity and budget of many schools. The CityLab team wanted to make the laboratory experience even more accessible and had thought for several years, Phillips says, about the possibility of “putting it on wheels.” In part to offer more capacity and in hopes of reaching a greater diversity of students, the team created the mobile lab. “It can pull into the parking lot and the students can march out and get right on the bus,” she says. “We’re hoping the sheer availability will help us reach a lot of new teachers and students,” she says. Moreover, Franzblau notes, the accessibility offered by a mobile laboratory means students won’t have to take a full day off to use its resources; various classes can spend shorter periods in the lab.

Starved for resources, science teachers in underfunded public-high-school systems might well be attracted to a mobile lab program. But that initial impetus can’t fully explain the popularity of the program among students. Phillips stresses that students find the authenticity of the lab exciting. “They recognize the fact that some of the equipment is expensive and specialized, and they show a tremendous amount of respect,” she says, adding that in all the years she has run the CityLab program she has never seen even one instance of vandalism. “I think students pick up on the fact that this is the real thing,” she says. And the design of the curriculum gives students a reason for being in the lab and a serious job to perform.

The best part, though, Phillips says, is that the experience is not just authentic but also accessible. “Students often realize that molecular biology is do-able, that you don’t have to be really brilliant to do this work”. As Franzblau puts it, “If we get even a small subset of students stimulated, we feel we’ve accomplished something important.”

Franzblau doesn’t hesitate to forecast further expansion. If the mobile lab proves successful, he says, a fleet of three or so could rotate to cover a wider range of Boston-area schools. And he’s excited at the prospect that satellite lab programs around the country can build on the team’s curriculum and share experiences. “The need is there,” he says. “Every urban area from Atlanta to Seattle should have one”.

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