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Awesome Mutants and Fossilized Poop
Fifth graders crowd around a microscope in a UW Department of Biology lab as graduate student Takuo Yamaki slides a container of sedated fruit flies under the lens.
“Are you guys ready to see some mutants?” Yamaki asks the children. Their eyes widen. “Mutants?” responds one of the boys excitedly. “Awesome!”
That response is par for the course during National Lab Day, an event that introduces grade school students to scientists and their research.
National Lab Day began as a national initiative in 2010 under President Obama, explains Helen Buttemer, who has organized the UW event for three years. The national event was a one-time offering, designed to demystify what scientists do, but the UW Department of Biology has continued to invite grade schoolers into its labs annually.
“If you have Mother’s Day each year, you should also have National Lab Day for goodness sake,” says Buttemer, senior lecturer in the Department of Biology and director of the Biology for Teachers program.
For this year’s Lab Day event on May 18, the Biology Department invited nearly 80 fifth graders from three Seattle public schools. After welcoming them to campus and supplying them with miniature lab notebooks, the department divided them into smaller groups for lab visits. Each group visited four labs, with a total of 14 labs involved. Buttemer had no trouble getting labs to participate; in fact, she says, more faculty volunteered than were needed.
The labs represented a wide range of research, with hands-on activities integrated into the visits. “I checked in on a lab that studies fossilized poop,” recalls Buttemer. “As you can imagine, the kids thought it was pretty cool to touch ancient poop.”
Other labs covered everything from biological clocks to moths to pollination. A lab that studies zebrafish planned a scavenger hunt that challenged the students to search for specimens with specific mutations.
Sacajawea Elementary School teacher Mary Mills, whose classes have participated all three years, relishes her students’ enthusiasm for the lab visits. “On the bus back to school, they all share what they saw and did,” she says. “I hear ‘We saw mouse brains!’ ‘We saw fruit fly brains!’ They’re chatterboxes about it.”
The best part, says Mills, is her students’ realization that their classroom experiments are not all that different than those being conducted in campus labs. ”They see what real scientists are doing and see that they can do it too,” she explains. “It takes scientists off the pedestal but really excites the students at the same time.”
Buttemer hopes that this excitement translates to more students pursuing science in high school and beyond, which was the original impetus for the National Lab Day initiative.
“This event is a chance for young students to see what the word ‘research’ really means,” says Buttemer. “We show them that there’s a lot we still don’t know about the natural world and that what scientists do is ask questions. Our hope is that they see this as something they can spend their lives doing.”