Jeremy Craig, 404-413-1357
Jan. 6, 2010
Children are born scientists and are innately inquisitive. Exploring the world comes naturally. But at sometime during childhood, interest in science can slip away.
Georgia State University's Barbara Baumstark wants to keep that spark of inquiry about the world glowing.
Baumstark, a professor of biology, is the head of GSU's Bio-Bus program, which travels to K-12 schools and presents activities designed to show kids how exciting and fun science can be. The program celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.
"Children are natural-born scientists, but usually around age 10 to 12, they start losing their interest in science. Science no longer becomes cool. And as a consequence, we lose a lot of them," she said. "What we want to do is something where they get used to seeing scientists and think of them not so much as nerds, but as people who they could emulate."
Across Georgia, from the borders of Alabama and Tennessee, to the coastal city of Savannah, the Bio-Bus' lab has brought hands-on science activities for thousands of students from kindergarten through high school.
Activities in the Bio-Bus program, which is funded through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Institutes of Health and Georgia State University, include lessons in chemistry, biology, geosciences and physics.
For example, in a chemistry lesson, GSU graduate students teach K-12 students about different states of matter by making slime and seeing what happens when something is frozen in liquid nitrogen.
"We're not blowing anything up, but we put on a pretty good show," Baumstark said with a smile.
The program also gives teachers with limited resources tools to improve science education. For example, at a recent teacher workshop on criminal forensic science, Bio-Bus educators and program sponsors provided every teacher with a college-level textbook so they could get more of a background in the subject area.
"We find teachers who are struggling against incredible odds to get materials into the classroom that will get students excited, and we do what we can to help out with that," said Baumstark, who has been at Georgia State since 1984.
The program's effects can be seen today, where Georgia State students can recall Bio-Bus visits to their schools.
"We're beginning to get students at GSU who say that they remember participating in the Bio-Bus program several years ago, and who say they'd like to join the program," she said. "That's pretty gratifying."
On another front, Baumstark is involved with primary school children to help them learn about the "language" of DNA - long strands of molecules which form codes in pairs based on four chemical "code letters," adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine.
The A, T, C, and G's of DNA form an alphabet. And Baumstark bets that since language acquisition comes easier at early ages, DNA concepts can be mastered by very young students, ages 6 to 8, if taught in a language-based framework. The initiative is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health's Science Education Partnership Award program.
"Part of the reason we did this was in response to our own anecdotal observations that students in introductory college courses seem to have quite a bit of difficulty in understanding genetic concepts," she said. "Their difficulties seemed very similar to the language acquisition problem, where young adults have a harder time mastering a new language than very young children."
Baumstark's work doesn't end with K-12 students. She also teaches genetics and biotechnology courses for upper division and graduate GSU students. In addition, she directs two programs designed to provide biotechnology-focused research experiences to undergraduates. One of these programs is a pilot internship program, which places students with small biotechnology firms in the Atlanta area.
The second is the GSU Biotech Scholars Program, sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which places promising undergraduate students with a graduate student mentor who guides them through an individualized research project. Students who complete the inquiry-based program can go on to get a master's degree at Georgia State and complete the master's program in a year.
Baumstark hopes that her educational activities continue and thrive on a statewide scale, and hopes someday to see other Bio-Buses based at academic institutions across Georgia.
And with a network of mobile K-12 labs, more budding scientists can be put into the pipeline in the hope that they will become the biosciences researchers who will help cement Georgia's biotechnology industry, and will make discoveries in such areas as health, agriculture and the environment that will benefit society.
"From a selfish point of view, the more biotechnologists we have out there, the more discoveries will be made to improve our quality of life," she said, "and those new discoveries will make my life a lot easier as I get older."