Science Comes Alive for Visiting High School Students

Posted in GUMC Stories

DECEMBER 11, 2014—In an effort to make biomedical education more accessible to diverse populations, faculty and students from Georgetown University School of Medicine (new window) hosted some 70 local high school students last week under the auspices of the Project Lead the Way (new window) program. 

On Dec. 3, 10th graders involved in the biomedical science program at Wheaton High School, which serves the communities of Wheaton, Rockville and Silver Spring in Montgomery County, Maryland, spent a morning at Georgetown to gain exposure to faculty and students who are involved in medical careers.  

Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a nonprofit organization that provides programs promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for students ranging from kindergarten through high school. PLTW delivers programming to more than 6,500 elementary, middle and high schools across the country—including rural, urban and suburban districts, and across all income levels.

Adam Myers, PhD, professor of pharmacology and physiology and associate dean for special graduate programs at Georgetown’s School of Medicine, organized the event. He credits initiatives such as PLTW with helping broaden the pool of people who enter health and medical fields, and ensuring that all who are interested and qualified have opportunities to advance. 

“It’s important to train people who are going to take their knowledge back to many different diverse populations and communities. One way to do that is to reach out into those populations and communities and nurture the next generation,” Myers says. 

Wheaton High School is among the first in the country to pilot PLTW. Heather Carias, a teacher at the school, says that many science students at the school have identified medical school as a goal, but have never stepped foot on a campus. 

“Getting students onto the campus of a premier university opens their minds to academia and may spark additional motivation to work hard in high school, setting their goals for going to college,” Carias says. 

Signs of Stress

The morning kicked off with a presentation by Tom Sherman, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and physiology, about stress and its physical effects on the body. Sherman says he enjoys interacting with high school students because “everything is new and fresh.”

“There is nothing better than a receptive audience. There is nothing better than telling students about something that takes them to a moment where they say, ‘Oh, I see now!’ You get those moments a lot with high school students,” Sherman says. 

And since all 10th graders can relate to feeling stressed, the subject matter really resonates with them, he says. 

“There are a number of things that we do unconsciously, such as blinking, sweating, how you look when you are scared. I’m hoping that from this talk they’ll want to have a better a understanding of how their body works at that level,” Sherman says. 

Following Sherman’s talk, the teens broke into smaller groups led by graduate students from Georgetown’s Special Master’s Program (SMP) in physiology, a yearlong program tailored to students who want to bolster their academic credentials before applying to medical school.  

The groups conducted exercises to measure their own bodily reactions to physical and emotional stress, such as singing in front of their classmates, reciting the alphabet backwards or doing a series of pushups.  

“We all have a responsibility to foster intellectual curiosity and leadership in the next generation through mentorship, and this was a chance for the SMP program to demonstrate commitment to that responsibility with the students of Wheaton High School,” says SMP student Mary Jenkins (G’15), who helped coordinate the visit.

Fear Factor

Students were also treated to a program called “Fear Factor” by Benjamin Walker, PhD, assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at the School of Medicine. The concept, Walker says, is to show the students in a hands-on way—using insects and other stress-inducing stimuli—how the brain’s frontal lobe modulates the fear response. 

Jenkins, who chaired the science department at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland before entering graduate school, says it can be challenging to demonstrate the relevance of science to students at that age. 

“I don’t think it ever hurts to see your teacher reach her hand into a container of bugs to demonstrate an acute stress response.”

Myers says the relationship between Wheaton High School and Georgetown will hopefully grow. And this, he says, benefits all involved. 

“It is good for our students to be role models and mentors, and for the younger students it shows them that this is something they could be doing in just a few years,” Myers says. 

Talia Turner, another Wheaton High School teacher, says the experience was memorable for students. 

“We are so grateful to Dr. Myers and Mary Jenkins for putting together such an amazing experience for our students. They really went above and beyond to set up a fun learning environment, and every single one of our students left campus more confident in their knowledge of the nervous system,” Turner says.

Addressing a Need

So-called STEM jobs are expected to grow 17 percent by 2018—nearly double the rate as non-STEM fields, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Yet more than a million of these STEM jobs are expected to go unfilled due to a lack of qualified workers.

“Students who have gone to good schools and have already been well-prepared to go to medical school represent a very limited population. There are so many others out there that can make contributions—reaching out into the community and into high schools is a way we can increase our reach and effectiveness,” Myers says. 

By Lauren Wolkoff
GUMC Communications