It’s not every day that high school students get to use high-tech science equipment, and it’s definitely not every day that they attend science lab in a bus.
But both happened earlier this month when Tara Johnson’s chemistry students at Johnston County Early College Academy had a lesson with a twist.
The juniors and seniors held class in a well-equipped science lab on four wheels.
The bus came to Johnston Community College – home to the Early College Academy – as part of a program that serves pre-college teachers and their students.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center operates the DESTINY Traveling Science Learning Program, which crisscrosses the state to provide hands-on lessons in science, including chemistry and biology.
Students in Johnson’s class conducted an experiment called “The Crucial Concentration.”
In it, they assumed the role of laboratory investigators whose task was to determine the amount of protein in three brands of sports drink.
Nick Hoffman, a science education specialist at the Morehead Planetarium, taught the class.
“It’s a lot more rigorous,” he said. “You learn a lot more in a short time.”
Real world labs
Hoffman said the point of the experiment was to determine not simply which drink’s protein content surpassed the others but by how much.
Students did that using spectrophotometers, which measure a light beam’s intensity to provide useful data.
The day before the bus’s visit, Johnson conducted a similar experiment to introduce her students to the concepts they would be learning in the DESTINY lab.
“All of the labs we teach are used in the real world,” Hoffman said. “If any kids go into careers in science, technology, biotech and biology, they’ll be using stuff just like this.”
Johnson has been taking advantage of the DESTINY bus visits since 2009, when she was teaching at West Johnston High School.
She began by attending a training session where she learned how to prepare students for a visit from the mobile lab. Since then, Johnson has called on the DESTINY bus once a semester; that’s 12 visits to date.
“The kids are very engaged when we get to do activities so different than the ones we do in the classroom – especially with the fancy equipment,” Johnson said. “Plus, having a different person in front of them other than me helps.”
In addition to spectrophotometers, students had access to digital micropipettes, which measure small quantities of liquid extremely accurately.
During the same week as the bus visit, students analyzed their data in class.
UNC launched DESTINY in 2000 and put it under the umbrella of the Morehead Planetarium in 2006.
Since the bus first hit the road, more than 260,000 students have boarded the mobile science lab, which receives financial support from the state, GlaxoSmithKline and Bio-Rad Laboratories.
The aim is to increase access to quality science learning to expose students to how science can play into their lives and perhaps their professional aspirations.
Senior Keandra Rogers said she enjoyed the mobile lesson, describing it as “more hands on and more professional.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” she said. “You feel awesome while doing it.” she said.
And that’s what Johnson said she hoped her students would get out of the visit.
“Mainly, just expose them to this type of setting ... what it’s like to work in a lab and see what it would be like to do it professionally,” she said.
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