“Do you guys know what a retina is?” Bravo Medical Magnet High School senior Chris Lee asked a group of third graders from Murchison Elementary. He was showing them around the science fair set up in the high school’s gymnasium last week. They had stopped in front of a poster project entitled “Expression of Rho-A In Mice Retina.”
Not only did the younger students know, they told Lee how the retina functions and where it is located in the eye.
As luck would have it, Lee had hit on one of the topics the third graders had studied during a two-week science program developed and implemented by the USC Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems Engineering Research Center (BMES ERC).
The BMES ERC — which is funded by the National Science Foundation — is a multi-institutional center that coordinates groundbreaking programs at USC, Caltech and UC Santa Cruz to develop “biomimetic” devices that mimic and replace damaged or diseased systems in the body. Part of its charge from the National Science Foundation is to bring science education to students at all levels, including K-12, undergraduate and graduate.
Lee is himself mentored on the USC Health Sciences Campus as part of the STAR (Science, Technology And Research) Program, that has been incorporated into this new ERC. In the STAR Program, high school juniors and seniors are taught basic laboratory science, develop individual research projects, and conduct research in USC HSC laboratories. Lee agreed to serve as a mentor for the youngsters on their field trip last week.
The outing to Bravo was one part of the activities, which included classroom instruction by ERC-funded teachers and undergraduate and graduate volunteers from USC and Caltech (including former STAR students) and a science assembly headed by Roberta Diaz Brinton, professor of molecular pharmacology and toxicology.
Brinton, who has volunteered as the STAR Program’s director for the past 15 years, is in charge of the BMES ERC’s K-12 Science Education Outreach. As someone who hails from a working-class New Jersey neighborhood, she told the students, she knows first hand that anyone can become a scientist. Some of her goals with the ERC program, she said, are to serve as a role model, convince students that science is fun, interesting and within their reach, and bring in the technology and resources these schools lack. “We’re talking about a school that doesn’t have any science textbooks,” she noted.
Having older students mentor younger students, she added, is “a great way to teach the scientists of tomorrow that mentoring should be part of their role.”
At the science-fair field trip this week, high school students like Lee explained everything from how wind affects temperature to genetically inherited traits like attached earlobes, tongue rolling and dimples.
The third graders also asked questions about what it’s like to be in high school and what Lee wants to be when he grows up.
“A doctor, man,” he said. “Doctors are cool.”