Few things are more energizing than a classroom full of youngsters fully engaged in learning. Such was the case one Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore, MD, when third and fourth graders at the Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School (Henderson-Hopkins) were constructing decorative DNA base pair units out of clay.
These students are part of an afterschool program that blends art and science called Science Outside the Lines (SOTL) created by Molly Gordon of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and funded by one of the American Society for Cell Biology’s (ASCB) new Public Engagement Grants. The grants were supported by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. ASCB selected seven 2018 awardees to receive from $10,000 to $35,000 to realize bold ideas that seek to engage their local communities in the process of science and increase public scientific literacy.
Gordon‘s SOTL program combines her expertise in and love for both art and science.
“I already had established SOTL during my first year in graduate school,” said Gordon, who is now in her third year researching chromosome instability and aneuploidy in the Rong Li lab. During SOTL’s first couple of years, Henderson-Hopkins had to supplement a portion of the cost of the program. “I wanted to make it sustainable for the school.” Gordon said.
Gordon, who graduated from a performing arts-oriented high school, began combining her expertise in cell biology to reinforce concepts taught within the Baltimore City Public School STEM curriculum. SOTL partnered with Baltimore nonprofit, Art With a Heart, to develop several interactive lessons that use paints, ceramics, ink, and mix-media. The science element is developed by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine graduate students and postdocs, who also help lead each session.
ASCB’s funding has allowed Gordon to pay for the Art With a Heart professional teachers, their helpers, and for the cost of supplies. Gordon said this was critical in an era in which funding for afterschool programs, especially related to the arts, has been cut.
Gordon derived her inspiration to create SOTL from experiences with her younger brother.
“My little brother hated school and academics, but one day he saw me painting an image of a neuron and said, ‘Hey, I know what that is!” and became very interested in what I was doing,” Gordon said. “He gave me the idea that people who may think they are not school-oriented or academic could be offered a different way to approach complex topics.”
Now, in addition to sessions related to cell biology, Gordon has expanded the SOTL curriculum to include projects related to biomedicine, ecology, astrophysics, engineering, and fluid mechanics. Molly Reisman of Art With a Heart is one of the art instructors who works with Gordon to imbue the science themes with the chance for the students to experience creative artistic expression each week.
“It’s great working with kids this age and also with the science knowledge that the Johns Hopkins graduate students bring to the content,” said Reisman. “The really important thing is that the kids have some exposure to science so the next time they encounter it, it isn’t completely unfamiliar.”
Students in SOTL clearly seemed to enjoy carving animal or plant figures into and painting the clay tile representations of DNA base pair units. The tiles would later be fired in a kiln, wired together with their companion base pair units, and displayed in the school. Most of the students could explain that DNA was “part of your body” and was in “everything, such as grass and all the parts of your body.”
“We learned a lot and it was creative too,” said a third-grader named Cannyn. “DNA makes you who you are.”
To learn more about ASCB’s Public Engagement Grants visit: https://www.ascb.org/public-engagement-grants/
Photos by Mary Spiro.