Ask a scientist why they love their job, and they will likely tell you it’s because they get to see and discover amazing things! Why, then, does science class in school never reflect this? A major problem identified in our society is lack of science interest and literacy. Mobile labs are helping to turn the tide and get kids interested in science!
Outreach using a mobile lab
Science is often hard to do in a school setting. It requires a lot of prohibitively expensive equipment and reagents that schools cannot afford or maintain. This problem can be solved by bringing the science lab to the school in the form of a lab-on-a-bus. This allows students (and the wider public) to experience the application of science rather than just the memorization boring facts and figures. It also has advantages for scientists, as many are now recognizing the importance of science outreach as an alternative career after their studies.
One such scientist, Ben Dubin-Thaler had this realization. After completing his PhD in cell biology, Ben was hoping to be able to utilize his scientific training to get the public excited about science. While touring the West Coast of the USA with a singing group, Dr. Ben realized a bus might be the perfect vessel for a mobile lab, and the BioBus was born! We were fortunate enough to speak with Sarah Weisberg, Chief Scientist of BioBus, and Sasha Chait, Director of Development, who were able to tell us more.
BioBus is a retrofitted NYC 1974 bus equipped with research microscopes and is staffed by PhD scientists passionate about spreading the word of science. The BioBus comes to the school and allows the students to make videos of crawling amoeba using phase contrast video microscopes, image the eye of a fly using a scanning electron microscope or visualize glowing plant chloroplasts using a fluorescence microscope. Guest volunteers have even included Nobel Prize Winner Martin Chalfie (who discovered Green Fluorescent Protein and revolutionized microscopy and cell biology) and Bill Nye the Science Guy! The BioBus changes the attitudes students have about science from a “boring” subject to one that is cool and exciting!
Have Bus, Will Science
There is a huge demand for science outreach. After an article ran about BioBus in a local newspaper, they were inundated with requests about their program. If you are interested in starting up your own mobile lab, there are some practicalities for design that you have to consider.
A bus, obviously, is not made with a laboratory in mind, so it will need to be retrofitted to suit this purpose. It will need a stable supply of electricity, insulation from the elements, and potentially heat and/or air conditioning depending on where the bus will be located. You may also need to remove all the unnecessary elements such as the chairs and any bathrooms. There are speciality companies that can help you with the retrofit.
Once you have a vehicle, you will need science equipment and the science itself. Donations are key to establishing any mobile lab. Most recently, Lumenera Corporation donated seven high-performance and research grade microscopy cameras to the BioBus. These cameras, including several of their INFINITY series, allow students to visualize and produce high-resolution images of life at a microscopic level. This is critical to allowing multiple students to see what a microscope can – rather than crowding a single microscope eyepiece. It also allows students to take home a piece of the science they generate, in the form of a photo of the amazing world they have seen down the microscope.
Another key item for consideration is how your lesson plan will both inspire the students and fit into a school schedule. For example, when BioBus first started, Dr. Ben was hoping that they could use examples using cell spreading, a key focus during his PhD. However, like many of the scientific experiments conducted in the lab, it could not be done fast enough to keep the students’ interest. Thus, the team decided to look at microorganisms because the students could see action happen before their eyes.
You also need to consider how your sessions will fit within the school day. You don’t want your mobile lab to be a burden to the teacher—you want to augment the teacher’s classroom to get kids excited about science. It might be more beneficial to go back to the same school and class on multiple days rather than one long day. This ensures that a teacher can invite them for one science period and it doesn’t disrupt other classes.
Final words of wisdom
There is a high demand for science outreach and you will definitely have customers! There is even a coalition made of up the early instigators of this movement (including BioBus) called the Mobile Lab Coalition that can help with establishing yourself and it even hosts a yearly conference.
Don’t worry about doing it all right away
Start small. It’s easier to get funding and donations when you are up and running.
Be aware of the constraints of your space.
Your lessons are directly constrained by the physical space you have. Be thoughtful on what you want to do and let other ideas stem from that.
Mobile science laboratories are changing the attitudes of the young generations about science and it is a great career path if you are interested in outreach!
The only constant with microscopy imaging is variability in both color and image quality. You only need to look at images in journal articles, posters, around your laboratory, or compare your images with a colleague’s—the evidence is staggering. Interestingly, variability doesn’t generally come from the digital camera, rather it comes from our use of imaging […]
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