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Driving STEM Education with BioBus

Welcome to Molecular Ideas and thank you for sharing your time with us. We’re back today with a Startup Showcase for an organization dedicated to empowering students, parents, and communities with scientific literacy through hands-on engagement.

“There's this crazy group of scientists in New York City who teach kids on a bus.”

That was how both I and Dr. Francesca Anselmi, Ph.D. heard about BioBus. Yet, such a simple statement could never hope to encompass this organization’s unique method for teaching science and instilling a passion for it in dozens of communities. Francesca is BioBus’ Chief Scientist, who I had the pleasure of sitting down with to discuss the organization’s unique positioning and scalable model for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.

Based in New York City, BioBus offers a wide range of hands-on programming designed for K-12 and college students to engage in cutting-edge scientific research. Though founded in New York City in 2008, the organization operates across New England, in major biotech hubs like Boston, and beyond the U.S. in Egypt and Jordan. To date, the organization has served 300,000 students from 800 schools.

Inside a BioBus lab. Photo credit to Andrew Cribb.

It began with a transit bus retrofitted into a lab for hands-on experimentation. Over the last thirteen years, the organization has become a staple of the communities it serves. It has opened the door for countless students to experience STEM-based opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Beyond Book Learning

When I remember my earliest exposure to STEM in grade school, I see pages of notes and study guides written for the purposes of rote memorization. On the one hand, this is unsurprising. Paraphrasing Isaac Newton, we ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ in the hopes that we can glimpse a broader horizon. Understanding the fundamentals and context is critical to building the next innovation.

However, anyone who has ever worked in a lab will tell you that context only takes you so far. Flashes of insight can come just as easily when we are unfettered by what is while we explore what can be.

Unlike most pre-collegiate STEM education opportunities, BioBus brings a chance to engage with science from the blank page onward. While the organization has pre-planned programming for K-12 students, Francesca and her team recognize that innovation has no roadmap. In addition to their considerable portfolio of 45-minute hands-on classes, BioBus offers camps, internships, and other programming where students come with questions. From there, BioBus scientists collaborate with the students to help guide them on the journey to finding answers using the scientific method and an arsenal of professional-grade laboratory tools.

Students exploring the physiology of Daphnia, small planktonic crustaceans, with a BioBus scientist. Photo credit to Andrew Cribb.

Dozens of these tools have been redesigned from Ph.D.-level research to help answer student questions. For instance, Francesca’s doctorate was focused on building tier 1 microscopes that could help decrypt the inner works of the brain. While this sort of cutting-edge technology is typically reserved for elite academic institutions, Francesca leveraged her experience to co-create a powerful DIY (do-it-yourself) microscope with her students. This not only helped answer the questions of her students but became a staple of future curriculum programming.

The importance of STEM education cannot be understated. STEM education cultivates critical thinking skills that are invaluable across disciplines, as well as empowering students with technical literacy that can prove applicable to their future ambitions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), STEM-based occupations are anticipated to increase by over 8% in the next decade, with a median annual wage of $80,000. Plus, with billions of dollars have been pumped into the life sciences as a result of COVID-19. That money will last years and will need people with STEM education to keep pipelines moving.

Reshaping the Lab

While BioBus has reached an international audience, their operations are primarily focused on the Lower East side of Manhattan, Upper Manhattan and the Bronx in New York City. Over 75 of their students are Black or Hispanic, with the majority coming from low-income communities.

To say that these racial backgrounds are underrepresented in academic and industry laboratories would be a monumental understatement, as shown below in this study from the Pew Research Center.

The uneven progression of diverse representation in STEM fields is not only troubling in and of itself, but also in what it represents. Scientific innovation is predicated upon solving critical challenges to serve the greater good. As written in Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One, there are two types of innovation: one that iterates on an existing solution (think about the progression of the cellular phone) based on stakeholder-centered design and increased economic efficiencies, and one that brings new product archetypes into existence.

How can we hope to identify these challenges and solve them all without a range of perspectives and experience?

As Francesca put it: “This push for DEI in science is at the core of our mission, because our mission is about making science the best it can be.”

BioBus sees public school teachers as indispensable partners to advance STEM education. However, the inequities of the public education system (particularly in New York City) sometimes inhibits the ability of these teachers to address the nuances of certain student’s needs or cultivate gifts en masse.

For instance, Francesca shared the story of a few students with me. Let’s call this first student Tom. Though bored and seemingly disengaged in his middle school classroom, a single 45-minute, hands-on visit from BioBus brought him out of his shell. BioBus scientists were stunned at the inquisitive and insightful nature of his questions, which he had not previously shown in a highly structured classroom. Tom’s experience on BioBus that day (and later in their summer intensives) brought out an inquisitive student that thrives in a non-traditional learning environment – where adaptability and applicability are valued.

Tom quickly grew to be a leader amongst his peers, and he leveraged his experience to secure a paid STEM internship with BioBus. Those experiences empowered him to find his passion, cultivate valuable skills, and begin navigating his career.

Another BioBus graduate, Zarina, took what she learned in a different direction. As the daughter of Afghan immigrants, Zarina was awed by the fun, exploration, and efficacy behind the BioBus approach. She and her father launched their own non-profit, Fardah Roshan Academy, to teach children in Afghanistan how to read and write. Like BioBus, they strive to get students excited about learning and encourage them to be curious about the world.

Looking Beyond the Lab

These are only two stories of thousands that Francesca and the BioBus team have cultivated. They speak to the team’s ability to promote scientific literacy and approaches to problem-solving. However, the value of scientific literacy goes well beyond test grades and career selection. As COVID-19 has shown us, basic scientific literacy is an everyday part of our national discourse. With that in mind, I asked Francesca about how BioBus engages with students who are exposed to incomplete, biased, or potentially politicized data in their day-to-day lives.

“Not everyone has the same voice in science,” she affirmed “so it’s part of our role as members of the community to offer support, context, and clarity from a data-driven point-of-view – and above all, to do so respectfully.”

Out of this principle came ‘Science Town Halls’ – gatherings of BioBus staff, subject matter experts, and community members as a safe space for questions and critical issues. The importance of this goes beyond conveying facts – it speaks to the impact of decades of institutional racism in medicine on America’s minorities. Incidents reflecting this are as varied in public profile as they are ubiquitous. A few notable drops in this ocean include the infamous Tuskegee study beginning in the 1930s and the profiting from the immortal cancer ('HeLa') cells of Henrietta Lacks beginning the 1950s. These are to say nothing of incidents in medicine deriving from racial bias that still occur today.

To begin untangling that Gordian knot requires a space where questions can be asked and answered in a non-judgmental way. It demands that stereotypes, myths, and other imperfect preconceptions around race can be called out for what they are. It dictates that difficult subjects, conflicting sources, and current events are not avoided for their complexity, nor conflated in the absence of data.

“We pick the hard topics when we open these forums for discussion.” Francesca said. “We’re trying to approach it in a very non-judgmental way. And the parents and students in our community are incredibly courageous to walk out the door to face the challenges amidst the ones we all already face.”

On Molecular Ideas, we’ve historically covered organizations with cutting-edge approaches to some of the most difficult scientific challenges, and the innovative teams that have risen to the challenge of bringing this vision to life. BioBus brings the best of scientific innovation to education where it is most needed – not only to address the inequities of today, but to solve the challenges of tomorrow.

You can read more about BioBus on their website, including their at-home programs and their annual report here.

Please consider donating to BioBus via this link.

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