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Biology Prof Leads Weekend Lab Program

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September 7, 2005

“Just imagine how much fun it is for elementary and middle school children to come to Northwestern, put on lab coas that actually fit them and use the University’s state-of-the art laboratory facilities to do scientific experiments,” said Richard Morimoto, John Evans Professor of Biology at Northwestern.

Thanks to a program established by Morimoto and his wife, Joyce, each spring 60 school children don’t have to imagine how much fun it is; they find out for themselves. For four consecutive Saturdays in April and May, two groups of 30 first through seventh graders come to Northwestern to participate in the University’s Laboratory Adventures in Biological Sciences (LABS) program.

Among other things, the students examine cells, isolate DNA, experiment with genetics and learn about the human body using, as Morimoto put it, “the coolest equipment you can imagine.”

The goal is to get school-age children excited about biological science, Morimoto said. The best way to do that, he continued, is to provide an environment where the children are actually doing experiments, not just listening to lectures.

“Our program is real hands on.  The kids love to get in there and make a mess,” he said. “But, at the same time, they are learning about science and learning what scientists do.” 

Morimoto and his wife, an educator who designs museum exhibits for children, created the LABS program 10 years ago when their two children were in elementary school.  They wanted an opportunity to teach children what science was like at a university.

“We had wonderful resources and facilities here at Northwestern, and we thought it would be great to make them available to a group of children,” said Morimoto. University officials agreed readily, and the program began.

But, the Morimotos’ vision didn’t stop with the elementary and middle school students, they also wanted high school and college-age students to be involved.   They decided to pair each group of four younger students with a Northwestern undergraduate majoring in biology or biomedical engineering and a top science student from Evanston Township High School. The older students design the curriculum and help the younger students conduct the experiments.  Additionally, a Northwestern senior coordinates the entire program with help from the Morimotos.

“One of the fun parts is that the high school students and the undergraduates work together on the Friday night before each session, so they really get to know the experiments as well as one another. That makes the high school students feel a part of things,” Morimoto explained. “It’s a wonderful way for young, enthusiastic people to share their love for science with even younger, enthusiastic people who aren’t sure about science but want to try it out.”

In addition to doing experiments in the lab, students also have to complete take home projects.  Morimoto said he assigns the homework for two reasons: “It’s important to engage the parents, and there might be another child at home who can’t make the sessions, but might enjoy the projects.”

According to Morimoto, one of the children’s favorite take home projects uses five sterile q-tips and five sterile petri dishes.  The college students ask the children to rub the sterile q-tips on five different surfaces in their homes and then rub the q-tips on the petri dishes. “Then, we let the petri dishes incubate for a week,” Morimoto said.  “The children find out what grows on their teeth or the paws of their cat. It’s very real to them.” 

Itay Solomon, a fifth grader at Willard Elementary School in Evanston, has participated in the LABS program since he was in first grade. He said he loves doing the experiments and using the lab equipment. 

“The teachers are great, and the high school students are really fun to work with, too. It’s just a whole lot of fun being there,” he said. Solomon has recommended the program to several of his friends and to his sister, all of whom participated last year.

The curriculum changes year to year to accommodate the students who keep coming back, Morimoto explained.

Lisa Doi of Evanston, now an eighth grader at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, is another student who keeps coming back. Doi started coming in first grade and hasn’t missed a year since. She, too, likes the experiments and how the instruction progresses from year to year.

“When I started, I was really little,” she said. “But, they did experiments that I could understand.  It made me feel older because we saw the older kids doing the same experiments we were doing but on a higher level. It’s a great way to learn about science.”

This year, Doi, who is considering a career as a scientist, is going to assist in the laboratory alongside the Northwestern students.

Doi’s mother, Mary, said she has also been delighted with the program.  “Lisa’s always been interested in science, and the whole idea of hands-on science in a real science lab at Northwestern was very appealing to both of us,” she said. “It’s really continued her interest in science, and that’s great to see.”

This year, the program will be held on these Saturdays: April 23, April 30, May 7 and May 14.  Students can choose to attend either a morning or afternoon session, but they have to be able to attend all four sessions to participate. “We feel that for the team to work together well, the students have to attend all four sessions,” Morimoto said.  “We tell the parents that by signing their child up they are committing to all four sessions.”

For more information on the program, e-mail Heather Cates at h-cates@northwestern.edu.