Q: Please tell us about yourself and the path that led you to Science from Scientists.
Angle: I have an undergraduate degree (BS) from MIT in Chemistry and a PhD from Boston University School of Medicine in Biochemistry.
Erika’s Story for how I became interested in Science:
When I was 11, I was offered the choice of going to Washington D.C. for a class field trip or to Cancun for April vacation. My parents couldn't afford to pay for both. I chose the Cancun vacation. Those of us who did not go on the class trip had to stay back home at school with our English teacher, who gave us books like Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain to read. To accompany our reading we also did simple experiments such as growing bacteria in petri dishes. I really loved it. During my April vacation in Cancun we visited a crocodile farm. I learned that when crocodiles are mortally wounded they can flip over onto their backs, slip into a coma and die. For some reason that really affected me and I remembered this fact about the crocodiles' mortality when it was time to do a science fair project when I returned from April vacation. I wondered if cells commit suicide when they are infected by viruses similar to what happens with crocodiles in order to avoid a horrible death. From there my science fair hypothesis was born.
I knew I would have to find somebody to help me test my hypothesis, so I pulled out the yellow pages and looked up local biotechnology companies. I called these companies on the telephone and told them that I was an eleven year old student looking for a mentor to assist with a science fair project idea. Most of the companies never called back. I finally found one individual named Michael who was the director of a local public health laboratory. Michael agreed to meet with me. He asked what I knew about subjects like microbiology and immunology. Being eleven years old I knew very little (to none) so he sent me home with a bunch of text-books. I was intimidated, but it didn't scare me away. He informed me that he was available after 4 pm daily to answer questions and thus, I kept going back to learn more from him.
Finally, I told him of my idea for an experiment to see if cells commit suicide. He provided few suggestions for how to do the experiment, leaving me to design the method on my own.
I infected some cells with the least dangerous virus they had stocked in the lab, which was Herpes type 1 (the virus that causes cold sores on the lip). I waited for numerous hours watching to see if the cells committed suicide. Since I had never conducted this type of experiment before, I did not know what to expect. I learned that there was no simple way to tell the difference between whether the cells were dying because they were being infected by viruses or because they were committing suicide.
Our school-wide science fair came and I didn't win, but that was my first experience in a lab and I loved it.
The following year I was sick in bed with the flu and my dad gave me a book about Russian folk medicine to peruse through. This book described numerous herbal therapies for treating the flu. I was intrigued by these therapies, and decided that for my next science fair project I would test an herbal remedy on the same herpes virus that I worked with the year before. I called Michael and proposed my idea. He advised me to do research at the medical library. There I found a journal article, which listed ten herbs that were most effective in treating the herpes virus based on experiments conducted by a scientist in China. Unfortunately, the complete article was in Chinese (and I was unable to read it), however the abstract was available in English. Although the method was not described, the names of the most effective herbs were included. I then went to a local Chinese herb store and purchased four of the herbs mentioned in the article. I prepared the herbs and took them to the lab for testing. Michael encouraged me to design experiments to test the plant material. Two of the herbs worked in preventing the herpes virus from infecting cells with my initial experimental method. I then decided to focus on one of the two herbs for future experiments because it had been researched in much less depth.
These experiments triggered numerous others and I spent the next six years trying to determine what compound in the plant was responsible for the antiviral properties of these herbs.
When I went off to MIT I was looking for a community service project to participate in. As a child my parents had emphasized the importance of giving back to the community and I volunteered twice a week at a local community center teaching music, math and science. When I got to MIT I couldn’t find a project to be passionate about, so I decided to start my own. I began reading articles in newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times which described how the US was struggling to stay competitive in STEM because students were not up to par with their international peers and how young women were losing interest in STEM at a young age. I was very concerned about this and decided something had to be done. Thus, I founded Science from Scientists, to help inspire and prepare students during a critical time in their development (late elementary and middle school). I wanted students to understand how awesome STEM was and to assist with building confidence for those students who were concerned STEM wasn’t for them.
Q: Tell us about Science from Scientists: its creation (who created it and why) and its programs.
Angle: I am the Executive Director and founder of Science from Scientists, an organization that sends real charismatic scientists into classrooms, during the school day, every-other week for the entire year to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum. Through our programs, we try to positively increase the aptitudes and attitudes of students in grades 4-8 in STEM-related fields. The goal is to get students excited about science, but also to improve test scores and to prepare them more appropriately for high school and beyond. We also try to work with classroom teachers to familiarize them with STEM content - they learn from our lesson plans and can create follow up lesson plans for professional development credit. Additionally, we feature a parent section on our website where parents can log in and look at the activities their children have done with SFS. We also feature some additional "suggested follow up activities" for parents that can be used at home. This year we work with over 5800 students in our programs in Massachusetts and California. I have a staff of ~60 scientists who are part of the SFS team.
Q: Can you please expand specifically on two of Science from Scientists’ initiatives: (1) During School Programs and (2) Outreach Activities?
Angle: Our core program is our In-School Module-Based (ISMB) STEM Enrichment Program. In this program, SfS partners with elementary and middle schools that serve students in our target population: grades 4-8. SfS sends two real, charismatic scientists into each of these partner schools (during school) to see the same group of students every other week throughout the entire school year (~18 visits). During each visit, the SfS instructors coordinate with classroom teachers to select one of our 85+ hands-on lessons in STEM (topics include chemistry, physics, life science, earth science, engineering, etc.) to present that day. All lessons are aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) frameworks. Science from Scientists’ ISMB program is unique in that it is endorsed by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education as an “@Scale” program for its proven track record of success and for its ability to scale effectively. We measure our impact in four ways: by tracking Science, Technology, and Engineering (STE) MCAS exam scores, by administering pre/post quizzes, by collecting semiannual teacher surveys and by collecting third party assessment of student interest before and after the program.
Outside of the ISMB program, SfS also conducts a number of other outreach programs with the goal of exposing students and their families to educational, fun, hands-on science activities and to introduce our ISMB program to new communities. Our outreach activities include a live, interactive science themed stage show called “Science Theater” (past shows have taken place at The Hall at Patriot Place and Disney World in Orlando, FL among others in collaboration with Raytheon), week long Vacation Programs (in collaboration with the Whitehead Institute at MIT) that focus on developing research skills and project-based learning, Science Fair assistance that includes coordinating judges and awards, and tabletop activity presentations at public fairs and festivals.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top 3 obstacles that schools (teachers and administrators) face in terms of science education?
1. Comfort/backgrounds in science: One of the most common things we hear from partner classroom teachers is a lack of confidence in teaching STEM. Many of the K-5 (and even K-8) teachers we work with have taken only limited science courses as part of their preparation for teaching. Pairing content specialists with classroom teachers if they need assistance is one way of helping this situation.
2. Time for science during school: Teachers frequently tell us that because of all of the other requirements and content they must cover, (for example the testing focus on ELA and math, etc.) science often doesn’t happen because there is no time for it. Other courses are given a priority. We must allocate dedicated time for science to happen.
3. Politicization of science: Administrators and politicians have shared with us that one of the greatest challenges with having science taught in the schools is that politicians at the national level are continuously disagreeing about how to present certain “controversial topics.” These topics include evolution, global warming, etc. and are regarded by many as being “divisive” politically. Most politicians prefer to simply avoid mandating science testing at the national level (as opposed to English, math, social studies, etc. which are tested). The unintended consequence of this is de-emphasis of science in the school curriculum.
Q: What are the critical steps, in your estimation, that both schools and parents should undertake in order to promote and foster science, as an integral part of children and young adults’ lives?
Angle: Schools can form partnerships with individuals or external programs to fill in content gaps. These experiences/people can help classroom teachers as needed and can offer students a diverse set of experiences, which will help them with content comfort, competency and confidence. It will also help students to become aware of career opportunities and have an opportunity to become excited about STEM during the critical moments in their lives (elementary and middle school).
One of the most important things schools can do is to make sure that science experiences are predominantly based on hands-on experimentation and learning. Children love science when it comes to life in the form of tangible experience rather than just Xeroxed handouts from a textbook. The hands-on experiences and experimentation teaches students about the scientific method, critical thinking, teamwork and perseverance, all of which are important life skills whether or not one chooses to pursue a career in science.
Parents can help by first, supporting their children to study and persevere during school, and second by exposing their children to as many different types of educational experiences as possible, enabling their children outside of school to experience a variety of different educational opportunities so that their children can make informed decisions and maintain an open mind about the different types of STEM career opportunities and activities available (robotics, bio clubs, engineering, design clubs, etc.).