Bennie the Bull, a special autographed souvenir, has been kidnapped. The only trace that remains is a label that was removed from him; it sits next to a knife with a suspicious-looking red substance on it. Science club members from the Union League Barreto Boys & Girls Club are on the scene documenting and testing evidence.
This scenario is part of a learning exercise for the science club, an after-school program for middle school students in Chicago’s Humboldt Park and West Town neighborhoods.
Carolyn Jahn, PhD, associate professor in cell and molecular biology, passes out pipets, rubber gloves, and evidence bags for the next part of the lesson. Jahn oversees the science club, and she develops and creates the materials used each week. She says using a hands-on approach makes science fun.
This 10-week unit is called crime scene investigation. Today, they learn about blood. After practicing pipetting techniques, the students test samples of blood, fake blood, pizza sauce, a control, and the substance from the crime scene with an oxidation-sensitive dye and hydrogen peroxide. The goal is to analyze the samples to determine if the one at the crime scene is actually blood.
During the experiment, they learn what blood is made of, what red blood cells do, and the roles that hemoglobin and iron play in oxygen transport. The students apply the knowledge they learned in the previous chemistry unit and take it a step further to learn about oxidation.
After completing the experiment, the students dash over to the microscopes to look at red blood cells. Tomorrow they will learn about different blood types and get one step closer to solving the crime.
Volunteers, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine students, graduate students, post docs, and research technicians, guide teams of three to four students through the experiments. They commit to spending three hours, one day a week for 10 weeks at the science club.
First-year medical student Jake Spitznagle started volunteering in September 2011 after hearing about the opportunity at the student activities fair.
“The best part about going each week is getting to work with the same kids over and over again. We’ve formed strong relationships with the kids, and you can tell that they are genuinely excited to see us,” said Spitznagle. “They don’t get a lot of exposure to science in school, so it’s great to be able to show them how fun it can be. One of the fifth graders in my group told me that he now wants to be either a forensic scientist or a doctor when he grows up, which is really cool to hear.”
Other volunteers this quarter include first-year medical student Hannah Recht and post-doctoral student Ashley Wood.
“Though I’ve only been volunteering at the science club since September, it’s been a great experience so far. I enjoy seeing the kids get so excited about science, and helping them understand the experiments we’re doing has been really rewarding. The kids always bring a ton of energy, and I look forward to our weekly club meetings,” Recht said.
Previous units have covered topics such as chemistry, physical fitness, garbage and recycling, the physics of sound, and the digestive system. The science club also has a science fair in the fall.
Jahn wants to provide a safe environment that promotes learning and the excitement of science. She strives to increase science literacy by getting the student to read and think about science.
“I had a long-time interest in outreach. I realized with anything hands-on that I did for my own kids’ classrooms, the kids were like, ‘Wow, I want to be a scientist.’ With this program they learn what it takes to be a scientist,” Jahn said.
Jahn’s family has always been a supporter of the Union League Barreto Boys and Girls Clubs, and her parents donated funds for the science program through their foundation, the Reinhardt H. and Shirley R. Jahn Foundation. The funding also allowed them to remodel and build a science lab and equip the classroom.
Robert Goldman, MD, Stephen Walter Ranson Professor and chair of the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology, supports Jahn’s efforts.
“Carolyn’s wonderful and innovative program is truly outstanding, as it helps to nurture the natural curiosity for and love of science that is inherent in youngsters,” said Goldman. “Carolyn loves to teach the principles of science and modern biology to her kids, and her enthusiasm for communicating with them is obviously infectious. She raises all of the funds required for the science club herself, and, in a relatively short period of time, has achieved a remarkable level of success. I am very proud of her achievements.”