Biology Outreach Program Recognized in Excellence in Community Engagement Awards

From the June 2020 Desktop News | The Biology Outreach Program, an educational program for K-12 students in the Tuscaloosa area, was recently recognized as an Outstanding Faculty/Staff Initiated Engagement Effort in the Excellence in Community Engagement Awards.

The award is one of two presented to Arts and Sciences faculty by the Council on Community-Based Partnerships, a program based in the Division of Community Affairs. These awards strive to recognize UA faculty, staff, and students who are making a significant impact in their communities through service, teaching, and research.

The program began in 2008 as a partnership with Tuscaloosa’s One Place to allow K-12 students to increase their understanding of scientific concepts like health, environmentalism, and the biology of life. Over the past 12 years, the program has expanded to serve over 1,000 students annually in the Tuscaloosa area through the Tuscaloosa City and County Schools, as well as local partners, such as the Boys and Girls Club of West Alabama, Tuscaloosa Parks and Recreation Association, Girl Scouts of North Central Alabama, The University of Alabama Arboretum, I Dream Big, Inc., and the Children’s Hands-On Museum.

“The Biology Outreach Program has a primary objective to increase the love of science in local K-12 students using hands-on science experiments and lessons,” Jeana Yates, instructor of biological sciences and director of the program, said. “By contributing to these well-established and high-exposure organizations and events, the program allows our Alabama students to reach countless members of the public on a regular basis throughout the entire calendar year.”

Yates and the students in her BSC 393 class regularly visit local schools and youth programs with fun, hands-on activities. Some of the most popular activities include the Edible Cell, where students decorate a cookie with candies to represent different parts of the cell, and Microscopes, where students observe pre-made slides through a microscope.

“For the majority of kindergarten through fifth grade kids, this is the first time they will have ever used a microscope, and the first time they have ever seen images of cells,” Yates said. “We show them slides of skin cells, blood cells, bacteria cells, and virus cells. During this COVID-19 crisis, this lesson will be especially important to help kids understand what a virus is and see a tangible image of a virus.”

In addition to exposing students to new and fun ways to learn about science, Yates also emphasized the importance of including undergraduate students in the activities. This, she says, is a great way to introduce the K-12 students to STEM mentors that are relatively close to their ages, and allows the UA students to experience teaching in elementary and secondary schools. Since the beginning of the program, five biology majors have become secondary educators.

“This program allows UA biology majors to experience what it is like to be a science teacher for K-12 students,” Yates said. “The UA students learn to create and teach the hands-on science lessons, and they learn time-management skills, communication skills, and classroom management skills.”

As the program continues, Yates hopes to expand to other counties near Tuscaloosa, especially the Black Belt region. The class has also transitioned to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching lessons to K-12 students through Zoom and pre-recorded science lessons.

“The exciting thing about these online programs is that the undergraduate students can really think outside the box and utilize technology in new ways to teach young students,” Yates said. “They also allow local K-12 kids to meet UA students and keep learning science lessons this summer.”

For more information about the program, visit Yates’s website.