SJU’s Biology Department is Committed to Bringing Science to the Community

Thursday, April 25, 2019

by Gabrielle Lacherza

“I see purple hair and green dots,” shouted an excited third-grade student from General Philip Kearny Elementary School, while carefully observing a purple passion plant through a microscope during a plant activation activity. There were many such exclamations throughout the day as classes participated in engaging science activities at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) through GeoKids LINKS.

In 2002, SJU’s biology department partnered with the Wagner Free Institute of Science and the School District of Philadelphia to enhance and expand the GeoKids program originally developed by Wagner, a natural history museum. GeoKids LINKS places graduate and advanced undergraduate SJU students with Wagner educators in local elementary classrooms to help develop and implement curriculum as a part of their training in science. Students work closely with teachers and education experts from the Wagner Free Institute to develop the curriculum and additional hands-on science learning activities.

Currently, GeoKids LINKS works directly with General Philip Kearny Elementary School, Saint Martin de Porres School, Gesu School, and St. Malachy School. Major funding for the GeoKids LINKS and SJU partnership has been provided by the National Science Foundation Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education Program (GK-12), and by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Third-grade classes from the participating schools visit the University on a field trip at the end of the academic year to help wrap up the course. Karen Snetselaar, Ph.D., professor of biology, and select SJU students lead the three collaborative activities for the young learners.

A student from St. Malachy School explained his favorite part of the day was seeing Marty, a bearded dragon. He didn’t think he would ever see this type of reptile in person, but was able to get up close and personal with Marty during a scavenger hunt in the biodiversity lab.

GeoKids LINKS was the start of the Department of Biology’s dedication to increase science outreach targeted at the local youth and the general public. The outreach efforts aim to achieve two important goals: to increase science interest and involvement in the community and to help STEM faculty and students become better communicators.

“The department continues to find creative ways to fulfill a need to train strong communicators in the science community, while creating spaces of co-learning between local community members and our STEM experts,” says Molly Southwell, project coordinator of science outreach. “All of our science outreach programs are designed to be successful and sustainable.”

Strong science communication is essential for experts in and entering the field. GeoKids LINKS and other outreach efforts allow faculty and students to practice this skill, while helping the community become more literate in science.

Since establishing the GeoKids LINKS partnership, the department has implemented a variety of educational initiatives and courses, including the Seedlings program and High School LINKS program. Outreach efforts are year-round and go beyond the classroom setting.

SJU will partner with Main Line Health for the third straight summer to offer a free, one-week health science camp for rising fourth and fifth grade students at Samuel Gompers Elementary School. Designed and run by graduate and undergraduate biology majors, Body Adventure Summer Camp teaches nearly 20 young campers about how the different body systems work together to sustain a healthy person.

Science on the Hill is another successful SJU science outreach program, completing its fifth year of events earlier this month. Science on the Hill offers the community an evening to engage in numerous topics with groundbreaking scientists from across the region. It is now supported by Saint Joseph's University College of Arts and Sciences.

“It’s difficult to overestimate how transformative the GeoKids LINKS partnership has been for life science at SJU. Participating in science education outreach has sensitized hundreds of college faculty and students to the challenges that result from unequal access to quality science education,” explains Snetselaar. “More importantly, working with the K-12 community to bridge this access gap has changed how we think about science literacy and how we interact with all kinds of people about science.”

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