Science on the Move

Monday, January 25, 2010


Mobile lab delivers science excitement to K-12 schools

Surrounded by state-of-the-art lab equipment inside a semi-trailer, K-12 grade students from Annandale, Big Lake, Clarkfield, Cold Spring, Elk River, Willmar and many others are exploring the scientific scenes behind some of their favorite television shows. At multiple lab stations, they learn to purify DNA from a kiwi, measure their hair thickness by laser diffraction or use oil-eating bacteria to clean up an oil spill.

The mobile lab is part of an outreach initiative led by St. Cloud State University to bring bioscience concepts and hands-on experience to K-12 students in central Minnesota, enhancing the science curriculum of schools that don’t have the equipment and expertise to provide such training.

“Because young people begin to choose a career path as early as fourth grade, we want to make sure they’re engaged in and excited about the sciences long before they come to college,” said David DeGroote, dean of the College of Science and Engineering at St. Cloud State.

The 53-foot trailer also has a conference area, audio and video system, wireless network and satellite Internet connections and space for 35 students. The equipment and experiments are designed to attract young people to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Science Express hit the road early this fall for weeklong visits. Spending one week at each school on the schedule, the lab on wheels will serve an estimated 7,500 students at 25 schools by the end of the academic year. That is far beyond initial expectations.

“We thought that we’d see maybe 100 students on an average week,” said Bruce Jacobson, director of bioscience outreach and associate professor of biological sciences at St. Cloud State. “What we’re seeing is that teachers are working hard to get as many students in as they can.”

One of the first stops was Rockford, Minn. “The kids got to do a lot of really neat activities and use equipment we wouldn’t normally be able to afford as a school,” said Marie Flanary, principal of Rockford Middle School, which hosted the mobile unit in September.

“I would love to bring it back here because of all the enthusiasm it brought in the community,” Flanary said. “I had a lot of parents tell me that it was really cool and their kids talked about it for a long time after.”

Jacobson knows the lab is making a difference. He sees it in the expressions and comments by students such as a high school sophomore who stepped into the semi on the third day of a challenging experiment and said: “I’m so glad we were able to come back here. I love it out here.”

 A combination of the atmosphere and interest in the activities has led to a high level of student engagement. A recent count by the lab’s lead instructor found that 90 percent of sixth graders were engaged in the learning activity, compared with 60 to 70 percent of students in a traditional environment.

The impact is attracting the attention of science leaders throughout the state. “This kind of implementation is where it all begins,” said Dale Wahlstrom, chief executive officer of the BioBusiness Alliance of Minnesota. “We can’t have an industry without the kids.”

The lab’s lead teacher is Mike Gabrielson, a retired high school science teacher, and working with him is Stacy Helgeson, an experienced elementary school teacher who has been engaging students ages 5 through 12 in the lab experiments.

“The kids have been very excited that they’re seeing things they haven’t seen in the classroom,” Helgeson said. The most popular experiment so far? “The DNA,” she said. “They extract DNA from a fruit – kiwi, strawberries and bananas – and can take home the test tube to show it to their parents.”

Community partnerships have made the project possible. With a donation from Medtronic of a high-tech trailer that the Minneapolis firm previously used for training physicians, the Science Express is believed to be among the most sophisticated mobile lab programs in the country.

Others contributing in-kind and financial support include the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Innovative Laboratory Systems, Morgan Family Foundation, 3M, Everything Signs and a WIRED grant from the Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace.

Four colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System are collaborating with St. Cloud State University on the project: Ridgewater College, Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, and St. Cloud Technical College. To learn more, visit www.stcloudstate.edu/cose/outreach/sabre.asp.

Science Initiative

 Imagine biology, engineering and computer science students working alongside one another in a lab space to create a biological sensor for a new device that a local company is looking to bring to market. It is a real-world need that St. Cloud State University would like to offer its students and the broader community through the proposal of a new Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory Facility (ISELF).

“This space would allow students to continue to show their technical competency while learning the soft skills sought after by employers like team work, project management and meeting deadlines,” said David DeGroote, dean of the College of Science and Engineering.

While a vision of the College of Science and Engineering, ISELF aims to deliver 100,000-square-feet of flexible lab space from which students across campus can benefit. The $42.3-million facility would allow departments to pool their resources and expertise to provide a robust and flexible lab space designed for graduate work.

The facility, DeGroote said, would move away from the “silo effect” of departments and provide a broader level of interaction of students. Eventually, ISELF will have the capacity to do 50 managed projects at one time.

ISELF sprung from a facility inventory and workforce needs assessment conducted by DeGroote shortly after he became dean in 2005.

“I wanted to understand where we were,” he said. “Then, I wanted to look at the future workforce needs and make sure we were providing educational opportunities that supported them.”

ISELF will mark the culmination of a three-part science initiative that aims to meet a growing demand for science and engineering education. Since 2002, the College of Science and Engineering has seen a 68 percent increase in intended undergraduate majors and an 86 percent increase in graduate students.

The University launched the initiative with a $14.5-million addition to the Robert H. Wick Science Building. The addition, completed earlier this year, provides modern laboratories to introductory students in chemistry, biology and physics. The college plans to finish with more than $13.6-million in renovations to Brown Hall that will bring the nursing program on campus while providing space for general science education, communication sciences and disorders and continuing studies programs.

The University will have spent $2.5-million in planning for ISELF between the $900,000 approved by the legislature and $1.6-million in savings from the Brown Hall renovations. The project will be nearly “shovel-ready” when the legislature authorizes funding.

Building By the Numbers

Robert H. Wick Addition
35,000 Square feet added
Cost: $14.5 million
January 2009
Primary users:
Students in introductory
biology, chemistry and physics

Brown Hall Renovation
75,000 Square feet
Cost: $15 million
December 2009
Primary users:
Nursing students and
general science education

ISELF Construction
100,000 Square feet
Cost: $42.3 million
Early 2011
anticipated start
Primary users: Graduate research, particularly for science, technology engineering and math

“In this new facility we will prepare graduates for 21st Century opportunities and challenges,” SCSU President Earl Potter said during his convocation. “The plan for ISELF was created in partnership with Vice Chancellor Laura King and her staff at the system offices of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, but it probably would not have come together without the support of alums like Joel Goergen, ’86, chief scientist at Force Ten Networks, the Chamber of Commerce and business partners like Medtronics and Bob Coborn at MicroBioLogics.”

The college will request funds for construction, anticipated to start in 2011, in the 2010 legislative session. Those dollars would help fulfill a vision to provide a space that is responsive to trends and unforeseen educational needs.

With movable benches and cabinetry, ISELF can easily adapt and be reconfigured to meet the vast lab needs of today and even opportunities in the future. “We don’t know what kinds of jobs are going to be out there and what the convergence will be,” DeGroote said. “We have to build a building that adapts to whatever comes down the road.”

- Story By Dawn Zimmerman | Photograph by Jason Jones

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