Biogen Idec Volunteers Turn Kids Into Scientists

The students step off the bus as middle schoolers, but quickly become scientists clad in white lab coats and safety goggles as they enter the Biogen Idec Community Lab. As part of their afternoon “apprenticeship” class with Citizen Schools, once a week they leave school to conduct real experiments with some of the country’s top scientists.

Citizen Schools is proud to announce that the Biogen Idec Foundation has made a generous investment of $250,000 to help make more moments of transformation possible for students through hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) apprenticeship classes in Massachusetts and North Carolina.

dsc_9811Since 2009, the Biogen Idec Foundation has seen the impact of hosting Citizen Schools students in the Biogen Idec Community Lab led by Tracy Callahan, Director. The Biogen Idec Community Lab opened in 2002 with the goal of getting more kids excited about STEM careers through exposure to experiments and real-world scientists. The Biogen Idec Community Lab brings in middle school and high school students to have hands-on lab experiences. More than 18,000 students have come through the lab since its inception.

Fifty of those students have come from Citizen Schools. In the apprenticeship class, the students learn how to design and complete an experiment to answer a question of their choosing. For example, while learning about bacteria, the students set out to find out what makes them grow, or how antibiotics work.

In the first few sessions, Tracy and a group of volunteers from Biogen Idec introduce the students to the scientific process and get them comfortable with the equipment. The students come up with their own question they want to answer and then collect and analyze the data. They complete a full experiment over the course of 12 weeks.

“We want them doing as much as possible in an engaging manner, said Callahan. “Students learn best when they have a task at hand that they must solve. From day one, students are outfitted in lab coats and goggles. This empowers them. In fact, I’ve heard them say, ‘I feel like a scientist and I look like a scientist.’”

IMG_7468At the end of the project the students put together a poster, which is how real scientists often share information to the scientific community. They have the chance present their research at a poster session attended by scientists at Biogen Idec for a truly authentic experience.

When the students present their findings to experts in the field, the impact is clear. “What always impresses me is that the kids are pulling this together themselves. I’m not always sure if they’re really getting it, but then at the poster session—they shine. They are so full of energy. Once they start talking to people, it makes you say, ‘WOW they really understood what was going on here,’” Tracy said.

As STEM education becomes more crucial to ensuring a qualified workforce in the future, Citizen Schools is proud to have the support of the Biogen Idec Foundation and scientists such as Tracy Callahan.

“The future economy is going to be based on STEM fields, so we need all sorts of people to go into those fields, Callahan said. “There is so much innovation and technology affecting every area of our lives. Students need to be prepared for that to be good citizens, but also to have enriching careers. Many students have misconceptions about science fields and what it’s like to be a scientist. We have the opportunity to open their eyes to what it’s really like, and hopefully, in doing so, inspire them. By putting on a lab coat, and saying ‘I’m a scientist,’ they know they can actually become one.”