“I like to think of organelles as if they were like the cell’s little organs,” Jefferson biomedical student Sheera Rosenbaum, explained to the 7th and 8th graders who came to learn how science applied to their everyday life at the Saturday Academy at Jefferson “It helped me remember when I was learning about them.” The cell membrane is like the skin, the nucleus is like our brain, the mitochondria is like our heart and so on, she said. The students were getting ready to look at their own cheek cells under the microscope.
On a chilly Saturday morning, a small group of Jefferson students and employee volunteers are up early sitting at round tables with their middle-school mentees. They are a small portion of the 45 Jefferson students and staff who make the Saturday Academies a success. The students from three partnering middle schools work with their mentors to prepare microscope slides of their own cheek cells. The experience is often as rewarding to mentors as it is to the students.
“When some kids couldn’t see their own cells under the microscope, I told them to look at someone else’s since the cells would look the same,” Rosenbaum explained. “We mentors laughed because the students seemed a bit shocked or upset that their cheek cells weren’t visibly unique.”
Jefferson’s Saturday Academies are designed to help middle school students, especially those that come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in science, catch the science bug: the love of inquiry, the curiosity, the exploration of natural world. Saturday Academies are one of six programs in Jefferson’s Pipeline Program Repertoire.
While pipeline programs traditionally connect with students who would directly feed into a university or college, Jefferson takes the long view. Through the leadership of Cecelia McCormick, Associate Provost for Academic Initiatives, the Jefferson Pipeline Program spans the age gamut from 7 and 8th graders, through high school, college, and post-college careers. The Saturday Academies focus on the youngest end of the track.
Indeed, high school is often too late to spark a lasting interest in science. Many early childhood education experts say that exploration in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects can and should start as early as kindergarten and follow throughout elementary and middle school in order to give students an appreciation for inquiry and experimentation. However, little formal science training is required for K-8th grade teachers in Pennsylvania. As a result, many elementary and middle school teachers feel ill-equipped to bring science into their classrooms.
This is where extracurricular programs such as the Saturday Academy step in, giving students from underrepresented groups the chance to try science the way that scientists and medical professionals practice it. They get the sense from their Jefferson scientist-mentors how science and health can be such interesting and creative fields.
“As someone who does scientific research every day, I really have a lot of fun at Saturday Academy helping kids explore their interest in science,” says Rosenbaum. “It is a great reminder of why I loved science as a kid and still love it today.”