Outreach Review: Encouraging Interest in Science in Elementary Age Children

By Gabrielle Voithofer, Salisbury University

Mrs. Markos’s North Salisbury Elementary School fourth grade T.A.D. students participating in a DNA extraction and gel electrophoresis labs.

According to the STEM Education Coalition, jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math occupy 1/5 of all jobs in the U.S. workforce. The STEM career field is expected to grow as much as 13% from 2012–2022. However, there is a disconnection between U.S. students and interest in STEM related topics and careers. Our ASBMB Student Chapter at Salisbury University wanted to explore ways that teachers and individuals in the STEM community could work together to spark young children’s interest in STEM and lifelong learning. With the funds we received from our Student Chapters Outreach Grant, our chapter and the department of biological sciences at SU we were able to hold two separate outreach events for elementary and middle school age children in the Wicomico County area. Our intended purpose of holding these two events was to inspire an interest in biology and learning in children of our surrounding Wicomico County community. Wicomico County is located on the eastern shore of Maryland and is approximately two hours southeast of the state capital, Annapolis.

Mrs. Markos’s North Salisbury Elementary School fourth grade T.A.D. students participating in a DNA extraction and gel electrophoresis labs.


Every three years, students and teachers from the Wicomico County Thinking And Doing program are invited to Salisbury University’s campus for a day-long, genetics-related field trip. Dr. Patti Erickson, a professor from the department of biological sciences at SU, communicated with local elementary schools about organizing a series of field trips to SU’s biology department. On March 31 and April 7, over a hundred students in total visited SU’s department of biological sciences and participated in a variety of different labs. The labs that students had the chance to participate in included: gel electrophoresis, DNA extraction lab, a “learning about Phenylketonuria” simulation lab, and a “learning about green fluorescent protein” lab. The labs were run by both professors and students, and volunteers from our ASBMB Student Chapter and the department of biological sciences as a whole supported this event.


Our executive board also organized an entirely student-led event called DNA Discovery. This event was a set of participation-based activities held at our local branch of the Wicomico Library, located at The Centre at Salisbury shopping mall. Lauren DeLong, a member of our executive board, contacted the volunteer coordinator at the Wicomico County Public Library and organized this event. Ruthie Heying, president, and Callista Brown, secretary, supported Lauren in obtaining materials and leading the event. On May 6, Dr. Patti Erickson, our executive board members, and several other volunteers from our ASBMB Student Chapter met at the library and led 10 children from the local Wicomico County community through three different activities. These included DNA isolation, candy and foam DNA structures, and a Mystery Code worksheet. In the DNA isolation activity we walked students through how to bring out DNA from their own cheek cells so that it was visible to the naked eye and placed it in microcentrifuge tubes as necklaces. We discussed the structure of DNA and led students in learning nucleotide base pairing with our foam models and then allowed students to create their own DNA molecules with candy. Finally, our Mystery Code worksheet required students to put into practice the base pairing rules that they had learned from our DNA structure activities to spell out a “secret” message.

Children from the local community participating in a foam DNA structure lab, led by both members of our chapter’s executive board and members.

Our members and volunteers enjoyed the opportunity to work with younger students in the Wicomico County area. Andrea Carmack, our chapter’s new treasurer, found the experiences rewarding, expressing that she was “excited to share her love of biology with a younger generation.” Jamie Barbosa, our current vice president, called the experience “mutually enriching for both the young students as well as herself.” I personally enjoyed this experience because it allowed me to participate in something that involved two things I am passionate about: science and volunteerism. In the future, we hope to find a better way to survey the students that participated about their experience than answering a series of questions on paper. This feedback is important for the betterment of this outreach event for other students in the future. As a chapter, we hope to organize further outreach events like these in the future and continue to be active members in our community.


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