Attracting high schoolers to STEM with plants and creativity

Health in our hands

It doesn’t take long to see that the curriculum born out of this collaboration offers a very different experience than the high school biology classes of yore. For starters, it has a balloon for a workbook.

The cover of a comic titled Mystery of a Monkeyflower.  It shows two young researchers standing in a field of yellow monkeyflowers.

The cover of the comic used in a new high school science program, developed by a collaboration between researchers at Michigan State University. It was conceived by Idit Adler, written by Danny Jackson and illustrated by Louie Chin. Credit: Michigan State University (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Second, students are getting their hands dirty growing plants called yellow monkeyflowers that MSU researchers are actively studying. High schoolers are asking some of the same questions that professional plant scientists try to answer.

This curriculum is designed to make the idea of ​​science as a field of study and potential career path more accessible to teenagers.

“We’re engaging them with science in scientific practices, not just letting them know about science,” she says Hilda Makoriwho joined the CREATE for STEM Institute to MSU as a postdoctoral research associate and curriculum specialist in 2021. “They learn to look at things differently. This is a lifetime impact.

The institution’s name is an acronym for Collaborative Research in Education, Assessment and Teaching Environments for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Collaborative in name and nature, CREATE for STEM is managed by the College of EducationTHE College of Natural Sciences and the Lyman Briggs College in coordination with the Provost’s office.

The institution’s high school STEM curriculum is part of the Health in our hands program, which CREATE for STEM manages with the support of a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award. Now in its third round of funding, Health in Our Hands is helping schools implement and meet modern science education standards that were finalized in 2013.

An illustrated portrait of Hildah Makori

Hildah Makori, postdoctoral researcher and curriculum specialist at the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University. Credit: May Napora/MSU

Under these standards, students are encouraged to ask questions and challenged to find answers with teachers providing support, guidance and resources as needed. In a sense, the standards give students the keys to begin investigating like scientists and thinking of themselves as scientists.

Health in our hands then helps them lead with a cartoon that serves as a roadmap of sorts.

Idit Adler, a former postdoctoral researcher at CREATE for STEM, came up with the idea for the story and comic “Mystery of the Monkeyflower”. He also helped launch the project and develop its original curriculum.

The comic was written by Danny Jackson, who the team described as the perfect person for the job. He worked at MSU as a research technician after earning degrees in creative writing and ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Jackson is now a doctoral student at Arizona State University and Adler is a science education researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Louie Chin, a professional illustrator based in New York City, was the artist.

The comic’s main characters — a pair of young field scientists — invite high school students to help with plant research inspired by a real project at MSU. Students grow their own yellow monkey flowers and then observe, speculate and experiment as they learn about genetics, evolution and how they interact with the environment.

The approach is generalizable, but Health in Our Hands has prioritized working with underrepresented and underserved communities in Michigan so it can also work to narrow opportunity gaps in the sciences.

Irene “Renee” Bayer, associate director of engagement at the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University. Credit: May Napora/MSU

“The program links science to social justice and equity,” says Makori, who recently completed her postdoctoral opportunity at MSU and joined Bowdoin College. “Students can see themselves in science, and they can see science as something they can use, as well as how our environment affects genes.”

In addition to teaching science content in a new way, Health in Our Hands also wants to share the idea of ​​science as a tool and potential career path with students who haven’t necessarily seen it as more than a school subject.

Currently, Black and African Americans make up less than 10% of the nation’s STEM workforce. In its latest iteration, which began in 2019, Health in Our Hands worked with communities in Genesee County, including Flint, where more than half of the city’s residents identify as Black or African American.

“We are very interested in broadening participation in science. We want to show that it’s not just something white or privileged people have access to,” says Irene “Renee” Bayer. Bayer is the principal investigator for the Health in Our Hands program and associate director of engagement at CREATE for STEM.

“That’s why the comic features two young black men. When we showed it to the Flint kids, a lot of them were like, ‘What? Can you get paid to go out into nature and look at things?’” says Bayer. “Not that they’re all going to be field researchers, but it’s broadening the idea of ​​who can go out and do science.”

To achieve this, however, the team still needed a scientific topic that students would find engaging.

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