Using outreach as inspiration









Several weeks ago, I, along with several other volunteers, assisted in Mrs. Shah’s 7th grade classroom at Portola Middle School.  If you remember back to Nickie’s blog post last month, we went to the same school to judge a science fair. As she mentioned, we realized the shocking student-teacher ratio…34:1!! So, we decided to help Mrs. Shah wrangle and inspire her 34 students by assisting with their bacterial transformation lab (For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, transformation is the process by which bacterial DNA will uptake foreign DNA allowing it to be expressed in future generations).

We very quickly noticed that this was not your typical 7th grade classroom. If you were to ask any of the students to explain bacterial transformation and gel electrophoresis, each and every one of them could provide a better answer than most college students and maybe even graduate students. In fact, I have never heard the process explained so eloquently than by one shy student in the back corner. I should note that these students are part of the highly gifted program, which is found within the LA Unified School District. This program is:

Designed for students of extraordinary intelligence who have unique intellectual, social and emotional needs not met by normal gifted programs. The purpose is to cluster students of similar capabilities and needs with teachers who can challenge them with greater academic and intellectual rigor while meeting their social and emotional needs.

Like the well-trained scientists that they are, the students were (relatively) calm as they added loading dye to their samples, and proceeded to load the gel wells. The groups entrusted the tough work in who they thought was the most likely to succeed, and got upset when someone flooded the well, or used the pipette incorrectly. Each group waited patiently for their gels to run, and were eager to see the final product, if for no other reason than they could use their phone to photograph the gel. The students were wildly disappointed when the expected bands were not present on the gel (welcome to science, kids), until the bell rung that is. For these 7th graders, their excitement for this lab stopped when the prospect of food started (not unlike most grad students when there is free food in the vicinity).

This was an interesting contrast for me, as I was also teaching bacterial transformation to my students at CSUN where I teach a for-majors biology lab. The fact that 7th graders are learning at the same level as my students inspired me both as a teacher and a student. From an instructor’s perspective, this experience motivated me to be a better teacher to my students. I also felt a sudden burst of confidence in my ability to approach all of the hurdles ahead of me both in my classwork and research, if a 7th grader can understand transformation then I can complete my thesis. Maybe we all need a little more outreach in our lives…


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