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HSC volunteers give local youths science lessons to SMILE about

SMILE organizer Penina Segall plays in the Science-Center tree house with local elementary school children

Biochemistry graduate student Penina Segall hopes that by teaching area youth how to make a seed grow she will help germinate children’s interest in science.

That was her goal in starting the volunteer program SMILE, which stands for Science Mentors Involved in LA Education and draws on HSC students and staff to teach weekly hands-on laboratories to first-graders at nearby City Terrace Elementary School.

“The program is really fun,” Segall said. “I ran a similar project with inner-city seventh graders when I was an undergraduate, and found it very rewarding.”

Last week, Segall and 15 HSC volunteers took the kids to the new California Science Center in Exposition Park. “The kids were able to view science through their own eyes, and at the same time interacted with people who are working scientists,” Segall said. The USC/Norris Cancer Center provided funding for the field trip.

“Afterwards, everyone was exhausted,” said Ite Laird-Offringa, assistant professor of surgery and biochemistry, who serves as faculty advisor to the program and whose entire lab staff helped out with the museum visit.

“It made me wish I had more time to spend with the kids. They’re just great,” Laird-Offringa said.

Segall, who is working towards a Master’s degree in Laird-Offringa’s laboratory, coordinates curriculum, organizes volunteers and implements the SMILE program. She is also in the midst of medical school interviews.

“This new program has come about completely from Penina’s initiative,” said Laird-Offringa. “I think it’s a great program. She works hard to make it possible.”

Labs have included making a fake lung to visualize how the diaphragm muscle helps the lungs to expand and contract, and a chromatography experiment. Because many of the children have limited English skills, Segall and others translate all of the lessons into Spanish.

The main goal of the program is to teach kids science while also helping the kids associate science with a positive, fun experience. Segall hopes that more HSC faculty, students and staff will get involved so that the program can continue next year. Anyone interested should contact Segall at or 764-0561.

The project has received financial support from the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, USC/Norris Cancer Center, Institute for Genetic Medicine, the School of Medicine Graduate Student Association, the Medical Students Association, the Engineering Students Association and the Philanthropy Fund of USC.

HSC volunteers give local youths science lessons to SMILE about

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