Teaching molecular engineering to middle schoolers

PME graduate students make STEM accessible through virtual classrooms

What can you teach middle schoolers about STEM using common objects like pieces of fruit and cell phone flashlights? According to University of Chicago graduate students Taylor Gray and Christina Wicker, the latest research in molecular engineering.

Gray and Wicker, who study at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, recently presented Junior Science Cafés—half-hour sessions that teach Chicago-area middle schoolers about science, technology, engineering and math using personal stories and hands-on activities.

The sessions, which this year take place virtually, are the culmination of a two-year science communication program in partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry. Graduate students at PME train in intensive workshops to better understand how to convey their work to a broad audience and how to engage individuals with science and engineering.

“Molecular engineering is an emerging field, as new to middle school students today as computer science was to kids in the ‘70s,” said Laura Rico-Beck, educational training and outreach coordinator at PME. “Junior Science Cafés are really fantastic opportunities to introduce molecular engineering to the next generation of scientists to show how exciting, innovative, and accessible it is to them.”

Gray talked with her students about DNA, and how it can be used to create medicines for different diseases, including cancer. First, they discussed DNA as a concept. Then, they performed an experiment where they isolated DNA from bananas, so the students could see what DNA looks like.

Gray uses DNA as one of the tools in her research, which focuses on creating targeted cancer treatments that activate a patient’s immune system to fight cancer. To make these treatments, she makes proteins that can stick to tumors and not healthy tissue, and that process starts with extracting DNA.

Now a science communications fellow at PME, Gray wishes she had been able to participate in something like the Junior Science Cafés when she was younger, as she hadn’t pictured science as a potential career path until she was in college. By giving students more exposure to science, she said, they have more opportunities to connect with the material and potentially see themselves as future scientists.

“I want students to come away with a notion of what a scientist can look like, and that they are real people and can come from lots of different backgrounds,” said Gray. “I also want them to see that science can be really fun, even though it can also be challenging at times.”

In her presentation, Wicker started the activity talking about everyday examples of light sources, such as the sun or a cell phone flashlight. From there, students explored how to change the path of light, and learned about total internal reflection in fiber-optic cable and how that is useful in telecommunications infrastructure.

As in all the capstone presentations, Wicker’s discussion related to her own research, in which she is working to develop devices that can be used to build quantum networks over fiber-optic cable.

Though Wicker wants to inspire people to work in science as a career, she also discussed with students how science is relevant in many aspects of life, regardless of career. At the end of the session, she talked with students about pursuits that people might not immediately associate with science, like cooking or gardening.

“By participating in outreach programs, I want to help challenge inaccurate perceptions that people may hold about scientists,” Wicker said. “I also want to spend time practicing communicating to a broader audience, because a lack of non-expert communication can make scientific disciplines inaccessible for those who want to get involved.”

The program is a great experience for the middle schoolers, said Rico-Beck, especially now when there is a pressing need to not only provide students with engaging virtual material, but also encourage them to think about their futures.

It also can be transformative for the graduate researchers, who gain important communications experience and skills that can be useful in many professional settings, she said.

“These researchers are meaningfully incorporating outreach into their professional practice,” said Rico-Beck. “That’s something we intend for them to carry with them for the rest of their careers.”

More virtual Junior Science Cafés are planned now through the fall. Details about these events can be found by contacting Rico-Beck at lricobeck@uchicago.edu.

—This story was first published by the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.