Montgomery County Lab Visit Stirs Interest in Science

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Montgomery County has hit on the formula for getting young people interested in science: Unleash 190 seventh-graders in a building full of robots, prosthetic limbs, microscopes, remote-controlled surgical arms and bacteria-filled flasks, and watch what happens.

That's how it worked for Yzella Viadaurre and Kirsten Peacock, two 12-year-olds from Shady Grove Middle School on a field trip Friday to the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center. They wandered over to Rachel Norwood, a bioprocess engineer for Human Genome Sciences, who explained her work with a flask of mucus-colored bacteria.

"The way I kind of describe it is, I'm a mom and these are my kids," Norwood said. "I've got to keep them fed, I've got to keep them warm." If she takes good care of them, the genetically modified bacteria will produce drugs that can be used in medicine. A tiny sample in a vial can grow to fill a 20,000-liter vat.

"I'm thinking of being a scientist, because it's actually pretty cool," Yzella said.

"It's really cool what they show you and how they talk about it," Kirsten said. "I never knew there were different kinds of science."

That's exactly the reaction the adults wanted. More than 50 years ago, the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union made science an urgent priority for American schools. But the scientists educated in the shadow of Sputnik are retiring, and educators are hoping that youngsters like the ones from Shady Grove will someday fill the gap.

"The United States is falling behind in science and technology," said Dennis Hansen, president of Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. "To me, this is a way to demonstrate innovation, to inspire innovation."

For the field trip, dubbed Frontiers in Science and Medicine Day, the students visited the Montgomery campus of Johns Hopkins University and were handed white lab coats and latex gloves, then set loose to check out exhibits by working scientists. When they completed a lab, they were awarded a sticker.

The adults came from several companies, including MedImmune, which developed FluMist, the nasal spray flu vaccine, and the J. Craig Venter Institute -- named for one of the biologists to sequence the human genome. (According to his biography, Venter had C's and D's on his eighth-grade report card, which should encourage struggling middle schoolers.)

"A lot of these kids, they want to be scientists, they want to be doctors" because they've been told they should be, said Edward Owusu, principal of Shady Grove. "This is where you catch them. Middle school is where science takes hold. . . . Here, they're jumping right into it."

As they flitted from racing robots to a bioinformatics lesson on sickle cell anemia to microscopes showing cancer cells, the students seemed impressed.

"It's really opened up my eyes to things," said Georgia De Buerba, 12. "I've seen different kinds of cells and how scientists make drugs like medicine."

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