URMC Start-Up Lets Kids Take Their Science Lessons “To Go”

October 30, 2008

Science Take Out, a University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) start-up company, is launching a line of high school science kits at a gathering of New York State science teachers this weekend in Rochester. 

The concept for Science Take Out was born from the need to help students meet state high school graduation requirements. New York State requires that, in order to receive a high school diploma, students must pass a series of Regents Exams, including at least one exam in a science topic. To be eligible to sit for the science exam, students must complete a minimum of 20 hours of lab activity.   The lab requirement is identified by teachers and school administrators as one of the more common barriers to graduation. In the Rochester schools, for example, half of the students who are disqualified for the Regents Biology exam – and, consequently, a diploma – are done so because they have not met the lab requirement.

Students fail to attend labs for a range of reasons. For many it is as simple as being sick on the day the lab was conducted. However, students who miss longer periods of school for disciplinary or disability reasons are at a greater risk of being unable to meet the state’s lab requirement. If these students attend schools that provide limited opportunities for lab class work, they are further disadvantaged.

“While it is relatively easy to send home work that kids may have missed in English or Social Studies, it is an entirely different proposition to attempt to duplicate science experiments at home,” said Dina Markowitz, Ph.D., the company’s president and an associate professor of Environmental Medicine at URMC. “Many schools do not have the resources to enable students to make up missed labs outside of the regular classroom schedule.”

Science Take Out evolved from Markowitz’s experience in science curriculum development and her work with students and teachers Rochester-area schools. Markowitz is director of the URMC Center for Science Education and Outreach (CSEO), a program that works with secondary school students and teachers to increase science literacy and bring up-to-date science technology into Rochester classrooms. The CSEO operates the Life Science Learning Center, a pair of teaching labs located in the Medical Center that offers science classes to 2,000 Rochester-area students per year. The CSEO also runs school break and summer science camps for middle and high school students.

The idea for the take home lab kits arose over time from many conversations with science teachers from across that state who saw a need for such a product. Markowitz launched several prototypes with colleague, Susan Holt, a retired Biology teacher from the Buffalo area. Holt had been previously approached by a school district on Long Island, New York that was experiencing high rates of students who were being disqualified for the biology Regents Exam because they had missed too many labs. Holt developed for the school a series of very simple science lesson plans that teachers could assemble themselves using materials found in local stores. At the end of the school year, every one of the school’s students qualified for the Regents Exam in biology.  Markowitz and Holt then set out to create a series of pre-assembled lab kits.

The company has already developed nine individual science lab kits that can be used either at home, in schools with limited lab facilities, or by teachers who do not have the time for lab prep. The kits contain all of the materials that are required to conduct the experiments and write the lab report and do not contain any hazardous materials or require any specialized equipment (e.g. burners or microscopes).

One kit allows students to explore the impact of environment and heredity on evolution. The experiment asks students to follow the genetic code of the fictional “Beebop” to see which traits give the animal an evolutionary advantage. Other experiments teach students the process of genetic coding for proteins using pipe cleaners and beads or demonstrate biodiversity by asking students to compare the physical and molecular characteristics of four plants species. All of the kits meet that state’s science education standards.  Detailed information about the kits is available online at www.sciencetakeout.com.

Science Take Out is making its commercial debut at the Science Teachers Association of New York State annual convention, which is being held at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center from November 1-4. 

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Mark Michaud
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