The Next Generation of Scientists: Hands-on outreach encourages middle school students to consider careers in science

a professor working with students

When Dr. Laura Reed passed around two dozen photos of racially and gender diverse UA students to a classroom of seventh graders, she asked them to choose which ones were scientists and which ones weren’t.

The kids responded with comments like, “This person is wearing big earrings, so she couldn’t possibly be a scientist,” but, in reality, each photo was of a member of Reed’s biology lab.

“I wanted the students to recognize and address some of their potential stereotypes,” said Reed, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “Anyone can be a scientist, but
studies have demonstrated that when kids don’t see people who look like them in a given role or career, it is harder for them to envision themselves in those roles.”

For the last two years, Reed’s mission has been to encourage middle school students—particularly girls and minority students—to pursue careers in STEM fields, or careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. This is why every two weeks, she takes a team of UA students over to Tuscaloosa Magnet School to conduct experiments with two seventh-grade biology classes.

“Research has shown that middle school is the time when girls and minority students start to lose confidence in their abilities to do math and science,” Reed said. “But most outreach programs that I’m aware of target elementary or high school students.”

Together with her team, Reed has not only increased students’ confidence in the sciences, but she has also helped the students understand how various aspects of biological processes fit together.
“In my own experience in middle school, I learned about DNA at one point and the cell at another point and ecology at another point, but I didn’t understand how they fit together until much later,” Reed said. “I wanted to make those connections more apparent to these students.”

Consequently, Reed uses her own research organism—the fruit fly—in almost every lesson. For the ecology component of the curriculum, students collected wild fruit flies; for the genetics portion, they predicted the traits of the organism using Punnett squares; and in a lesson on DNA, they were asked to solve the mystery of which fruit fly stole a banana. Reed had “DNA evidence” of the culprit fly on the banana, and the students were tasked with matching the evidence to the appropriate suspect.

“They extracted DNA from six different species, and they did some basic analyses and matched the DNA sequences to the right fly,” she said.

She says anything that is hands-on is good for the kids.

“Students don’t respond well to memorization,” Reed said. “And ultimately that’s not what science is anyway. Science is a process of questioning and being curious. It is not the regurgitation of facts—at least it shouldn’t be.”

Growing up in a family of scientists, Reed was always curious about the world around her. In second grade, she gave a report about the reproduction of blackberries. In sixth grade, she categorized every plant that she could find on her family’s property just to know which ones were native and which were invasive. In high school, she took a scientific illustration class that allowed her to study animals in detail in order to recreate them on paper.
Not every child gets such a rich upbringing in the sciences, so her hope has been to cultivate that hands-on experience in the classroom.

“It’s hard to be curious about something that you’re not exposed to,” she said. “But most of what I do doesn’t cost that much, and anyone could do it. Just put a piece of rotting fruit in a Coke bottle and let it sit out overnight. Fruit flies will come, and you can identify what species of fruit fly are in the area.”

In addition to increasing the students’ exposure to science in the classroom, Reed is also invested in helping young students “see themselves” at a university.

three young students working on a paper

Earlier this year, Reed invited the classes to tour UA’s campus on a field trip, during which they visited Reed’s research lab and were able to see the equipment she uses. They also toured a microscope facility, a fish room, the Alabama Museum of Natural History, and campus.

“Despite living physically close to the University, many of them have not had a reason to actually be on campus unless it’s for a football game,” she said. “They don’t really understand what else happens here.”
After the field trip, many of the students wrote notes to Reed, thanking her not only for the exposure to campus but for her time in their classroom as well.

One student wrote, “When you came to our school and taught us about fruit flies, I thought I wouldn’t like it but in the end, I ended up having a blast.”

Another student said, “Thank you for bringing the actual flies for us to study. … I might look into a career that has science in it now that I know it’s not only about space and the human body.”

The students’ positive feedback was verified when, at the end of the school year, Reed had the class take an exit survey to see how their interest in science had changed.

While 18 percent of students wanted to be scientists at the beginning of the year, that percent doubled to 36 percent by the end of May.

Reed is excited by her initial success and says she will sustain and enhance the program as long as she has the energy to do so.