Biology Professors and Graduate Students Engage Iowa Children in Hands-On Science Activities

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Richard Lewis, UI Office of Strategic Communication
January 15, 2019

Essance Stover proudly held a small cylinder filled with brightly colored beads and giggled as she gave her older sister an imaginary vaccination.

“Shots don’t hurt me,” the 9-year-old from Muscatine, Iowa, cheerfully said. “My doctor told me I’m one of the only kids who likes them.”

Essance wasn’t playing doctor, and these weren’t real injections. But Essance and her sister, Cerinity, were learning about illness outbreaks and the importance of getting flu shots and other preventative vaccines from a science outreach series organized and led by the University of Iowa.

The event at the Musser Public Library in Muscatine was one of a series of workshops created by the Science Booster Club to educate Iowa youth about a variety of scientific topics, including anatomy, genetics, environmental change, and public health. The hands-on activities started in 2015 with pilot projects in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and in 2018 expanded to include Muscatine and the Quad Cities.

UI biology faculty Andrew Forbes and Maurine Neiman lead the program. Graduate students in the Department of Biology provide critical organizational and on-site event leadership. The group works with the National Center for Science Education, a national nonprofit that started the idea of engaging underserved communities in the United States in science education.

With nearly $300,000 in funding from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, the Science Booster Club expects to engage as many as 25,000 children and adults in Muscatine and the Quad Cities in the next three years.

“Our Science Booster Clubs are providing engaging, effective, and informal science education on critically important topics like environmental change and genetics,” says Neiman, an associate professor in the UI’s biology department. “We want to connect with communities in Iowa that might have limited access to high-quality science education.”

Anna Ward is leading the club’s first foray in Muscatine, working with two after-school groups, the Sparkplugs and the Skeleton Key club. At an event in late November, Ward met with the Sparkplugs, consisting of elementary-school children, to teach them the importance of getting vaccinated against the flu and other diseases. In one game, which mimicked tag and involved the children and their caregivers, only a handful of “sick” participants were quickly able to infect the others in the group who had not been vaccinated.

Ward, a fourth-year graduate student in Forbes’s lab, told the children the game shows how quickly illness can spread, as well as how vaccines can help stymie outbreaks.

“A vaccine is like putting up a ‘Wanted’ poster so your body knows who the bad guys are and can fight them off,” says Ward, who is from Traverse City, Michigan.

Vaccines can be a complicated topic, and the adults who attended the session appreciated the effort to simplify the science.

“I think it’s awesome a college graduate is willing to spend time to explain these kinds of subjects to children in an age-appropriate manner with activities that are hands-on,” says Melanie Lorber, a Muscatine resident who attended the Sparkplugs event with her 5-year-old daughter, Lillian. “Incorporating science is important to being well-rounded, and this is where they can explore and do things that are creative and imaginative that we perhaps can’t do as well as parents.”

The Science Booster Club is equal parts spurring greater community engagement in science and research into how best to teach scientific concepts to different groups of people. In Iowa, the club has worked with rural, agricultural-based populations in the Amana Colonies, urban populations in Des Moines, manufacturing-based communities such as Muscatine, and diverse populations in the Quad Cities.

The data collected through surveys will help develop best approaches to increase scientific literacy in Iowa where knowledge and access to science—formal and informal—may be limited.

In Iowa, the Science Booster Club has engaged communities in science in a number of formats and venues, including the Iowa State Fair, community festivals, summer camps for underrepresented youth, library programs, farmers’ markets, school science nights, group hikes, and barbecues.

The goal is to interest more children in science, Forbes says.

“Kids naturally act like scientists. They see something interesting and they want to know more about it,” says Forbes, an associate professor in the UI Department of Biology. “It’s important to encourage that instinct in children. We should tell them that it’s good to be curious, and we should help them develop the tools to be able to seek out answers to their own questions. It’s also important to tell kids that science isn’t an exclusive club; anyone can do it, and we need more scientists.”

Betty Collins is a fan. The youth services librarian at the Musser Public Library in Muscatine scheduled six events for her youth groups during fall 2018 and wants to partner with the UI on more.

“One reason I love the idea behind this cooperative effort is that it gives high-level university students an opportunity to share their enthusiasm and their knowledge with an age group that finds it incredibly appealing,” Collins says. “Children tend to approach science fearlessly and creatively, and it is clear they benefit from Anna’s fun and educational activities.”

At the session on vaccines, Ward introduced terms like “antibodies” and “antigens” by giving the children differently colored beads to add to their plastic syringe. She explained that antibodies are the ingredients in a vaccine that kill other germs, whereas antigens help protect the body against particular flu strains by letting the immune system know these strains exist.

Even if some children may not have fully grasped the terminology, they understood the larger message that vaccinations can serve a useful purpose.

Admiring her colorful injection tube, Essance Stover says, “Mine is beautiful.” Adding, “And, I’m learning that vaccines are OK.”

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