Making science come alive Field trip: More than 1,500 Baltimore-area pupils explored museums, universities, laboratories and medical institutions yesterday in a program to promote interest in careers.

February 09, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Jamien Palmer, 13, took time out from the eighth grade yesterday to experiment with DNA, protease enzymes and the basic components of molecular cloning.

"It's easy," he said while standing in a biotechnology laboratory at the downtown Columbus Center, holding a stirring rod with a piece of DNA dangling off the end like a drop of water. "You just got to follow the directions."

Jamien and about 25 of his classmates from Lombard Middle School in East Baltimore spent the morning extracting DNA from salmon sperm and marine bacteria as part of Baltimore's Public Science Day. The event aims to promote young people's interest in science through labs, demonstrations and experiments.

More than 1,500 Baltimore-area pupils explored museums, universities, laboratories and medical institutions yesterday, learning about such topics as how enzymes break down fat and what dynamics are involved when paper burns.

Public Science Day was held in tandem this week's meeting in Baltimore of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is playing host to more than 5,000 scientists, educators, reporters and policy makers.

Part of the aim of the day was to interest students in a career in science, but also to show that the work involved in research isn't just about filling test tubes and scribbling down data, explains J. Adam Frederick, a marine education specialist who ran yesterday's DNA experiment at the Columbus Center, a center for marine biotechnology research.

"What we're hoping is that the students will appreciate science a little bit more and not see it as just a thing that 60-year-old white-haired men do," Mr. Frederick said.

"Today they're participating in biotechnology for the first time at the molecular level. We want to avoid the talking head approach and let them do it."

The Lombard Middle students, in grades six through eight, were given one page of instructions and a lab area complete with the organisms and tools needed to extract pieces of DNA, the genetic material essential to all living things.

In most cases, the students were able to "spool" the DNA -- resembling a long, sinewy strand of clear fluid -- in a matter of minutes after mixing salmon sperm with a protease enzyme and ethanol.

"See that? That's DNA. That's what life is all about," said 12-year-old Shirley Evans, a sixth grader at Lombard.

"It's neat stuff," said Nicholas Roundtree, an eighth grader. "I learned something here today."

Students toured the Columbus Center and examined a fish embryo under a high-powered microscope turned up to such bTC extreme magnification that the organism's heart could be seen beating. The pupils also saw an anaerobic chamber -- a tank with no oxygen -- used for growing bacteria that only exist in the absence of oxygen.

The lab program, run by the Columbus Center's Science and Technology Education Center (SciTEC), is offered regularly to schools at a cost of $5.50 per student.

For some students, even the thrill of science wasn't captivating enough. Some nagged about getting lunch and one girl asked "where the bodies were," referring to a morgue she thought the laboratory would have.

But John Hires, a Lombard Middle science teacher who chaperoned the trip, said many of his students approached him yesterday with questions like, "How many years do I have to go to school to be a scientist?"

"A lot of the children were mesmerized," Mr. Hires said.

"DNA and the world of science inspired people today, including me."

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