• Article
  • October 27, 2017

Mobile Science Lab Inspires the Next Generation

Hands-on science experiences introduce students to medical and research careers.

Students practice their pipetting skills onboard the mobile lab.
Students practice their pipetting skills onboard the mobile lab.

By Amanda Jones, Ph.D.

When Seattle Children's launched its mobile Adventure Science Lab in 2009, it rolled across the state of Washington to visit more than 6,000 students. The next year, when Children's Hospitals Today first featured the initiative, it was the nation's only science lab sponsored by a children's hospital. Now, eight years later, more than 55,000 elementary and middle school students have climbed aboard the 45-foot lab on wheels where they perform science experiments and learn about careers in science and health care. Equipped with medical and research equipment, and staffed by scientists and educators, the lab can accommodate classes of up to 30 students.

Several sources fund the program, including Seattle Children's, donors and grants, and it serves under-resourced urban and rural schools with high percentages of students receiving free or reduced price lunch. Across the state, 164 schools have received a visit from lab. The majority of school visits are within a one-hour drive from Seattle Children's Research Institute in downtown Seattle where the lab is based. The lab also visits schools in other parts of the state, including rural coastal areas and Eastern Washington.

Starting early

Over the last eight years, 72 percent of the lab's visits were to elementary schools. The decision to focus on elementary students is based on research that shows positive science experiences in the elementary years can establish a strong foundation of scientific knowledge and spark interest in pursuing a career in science. Elementary schools are also less likely to have access to the equipment and trained personnel to teach hands-on science, which is the most effective way for students to learn and retain science knowledge.

The curriculum

The Science Adventure Lab program offers a variety of different curriculum modules that teachers can select from. Each module uses hands-on activities to teach science content while addressing key issues in pediatric health such as asthma, concussions, nutrition and the connection between genes and health.

In the "Vital Signs" module, students use medical equipment to measure their blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature. Instructors explain these are the same measurements and equipment physicians use, which is a strategy to help students feel more comfortable when they visit their own physician. Many students have limited experience with health care professionals beyond doctors, nurses and dentists, so another key component is a discussion about the wide range of interesting careers in health care.

The "Catch Your Breath" module focuses on the respiratory system and asthma. Students measure oxygen saturation and peak flow, and breathe through a spirometer with a resistor attached to simulate breathing through a restricted, asthmatic airway. This has been a powerful way to help students develop empathy for their classmates with asthma.

In the neuroscience module, "Sense, Think, Move," students can explore the senses and basic brain anatomy, and they can perform electromyography to measure the electrical activity of their forearm muscles during various hand movements. Instructors discuss the applications of electromyography, the importance of helmets and concussion prevention, and career options related to neuroscience and brain health.

Career inspiration

Building awareness of the range of careers in science and health care, and stimulating interest in these careers, is a common theme throughout all of the programming. Following the activities onboard the lab, students are asked if they think they would like a science- or health care-related job when they grow up. Roughly 25 percent of students report they have always wanted to do this type of job, but about 18 percent respond they were now considering one of these careers as a result of their experience with the lab. Given that more than 55,000 students have participated in the program to date, this represents almost 10,000 newly-inspired future health care professionals.

The growing shortfall in the number of trained health care professionals is well documented, and programs like this can fill a need as an important long-term workforce development strategy for the hospital and the health care industry.

Supporting schools

The program's mission statement says every student in every school deserves to experience science in an engaging way that prepares him or her for success and helps the student become a lifelong learner and critical thinker. Schools can't do this alone, so programs like the Science Adventure Lab are one way to support the efforts of schools and inspire the next generation of scientists and health care leaders.

Amanda L. Jones, Ph.D., is director of the Science Education Department at Seattle Children's Research Institute. Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.