Feb 102010


The hands-on excitement of the lab to students

The Cell Motion BioBus, a high-tech, carbon-neutral laboratory housed in a retrofitted transit bus brings science education to deprived schools, and the hands-on excitement of the lab to students

It’s halfway through first period, and 10th-grade students at Frances Perkins Academy in Brooklyn are in science class—not in school, but on a specially outfitted bus parked outside.

The monitors above the microscopes flash into focus and the students are suddenly animated. “There’s something moving!” “They’re just crawling around.” “That’s crazy!” “Do we drink this?”

“Those are protists,” Ben Dubin-Thaler tells the students. “And no, we don’t drink this. This is puddle water I gathered in the Bronx.”

Dubin-Thaler, or Dr. Ben as his students call him, is the founder of the Cell Motion BioBus, a high-tech, carbon-neutral laboratory housed in a retrofitted 1974 San Francisco transit bus. On this particular Friday last November, Dubin-Thaler is leading four classes of 10th graders in a microbiology lab.

A scarcity of scenes like this one in public schools has led to the mounting concern of parents, teachers and lawmakers about the state of math and science education nationwide. Just before Thanksgiving, President Obama gave a speech addressing the country’s poor academic performance, quoting statistics that put U.S. 15-year-olds 21st in science and 25th in math compared with their peers around the world.

In that speech Obama also announced the launch of the Educate to Innovate Campaign. The effort proposes to elevate U.S. math and science rankings in the next decade by allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to the recruitment and training of new teachers, updating technology in schools, and developing interactive learning content. Along with a range of other planned programs and events, these initiatives are aimed at getting kids interested in and excited about math and science, inspiring the kind of awe that the BioBus elicits among many of the students that climb on board.

Dubin-Thaler established the BioBus in 2007 with money from his savings as well as donations from friends and family a few weeks after receiving his PhD in biology from Columbia University. Now the BioBus is in the final stages of attaining nonprofit organization status, and provides hands-on science education to more than 10,000 students a year in New York City and the Midwest.

All of the equipment on the BioBus is research grade and has been donated or attained through equipment grants. Dubin-Thaler tries to target the BioBus to schools that lack the resources to offer quality lab experiences. For many of the students at Frances Perkins Academy the BioBus offered an opportunity to use a microscope for the first time. “As a school that doesn’t have a science lab, to have something like that come to you is really awesome,” says Erica Tunick, the teacher who joined her class for the lab. “Unless you’re a really fancy private school, you’re not going to have the equipment like they have on that bus.”

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