Las Cruces – In the past four years, more than 3,500 high school students across New Mexico have conducted basic genetics experiments with the help of New Mexico State University scientists and a mobile lab that travels to a different high school each week.
The Mobile Molecular Biology Lab is an outreach program in the Department of Biology. The program takes contemporary biology research techniques to high school classrooms across the state and gives students an opportunity to get hands-on experience with state-of-the-art lab equipment.
"The Howard Hughes Medical Institute Program at NMSU provides a sequence of activities for high school, undergraduate and graduate students that are designed to stimulate students' interest in the biological sciences and to help them develop a more meaningful understanding of science," said Ralph Preszler, HHMI program director at NMSU.
The mobile lab program, created with the help of an HHMI grant in 2006, has been a success but Preszler knew it was only a beginning.
"The lab was so popular that we couldn't respond to all the requests from high schools," Preszler said.
Thanks to a new grant from HHMI, NMSU won't have to say no; instead, the school will expand its offerings. The grant will support new programs that equip high school teachers with the tools and information they need to develop classroom modules similar to those offered through the mobile lab.
They will borrow specialized lab supplies and take ownership of the process, adjusting the lessons over time to better suit the needs of their students and schools. In later stages, the program's veteran teachers will pair with outreach scientists to develop entirely new lessons and experiments.
"The outreach project provides support and training for high school life science teachers," Preszler explained. "The purpose of these outreach activities is to bring the excitement of modern biology into the high school classrooms in order to help students realize that science is interesting."
Preszler said the program's outreach scientist, Christin Slaughter, works side-by-side with the high school students helping them use modern scientific methods as they explore genetics.
Slaughter's mobility is what makes the effort a success. She takes these experiments, techniques and opportunities all across New Mexico, sometimes as far as Gallup, Crownpoint or Farmington.
"In addition to bringing science into high schools, the grant also supports the work of undergraduate research scholars in science laboratories at NMSU," Preszler said. "Research scholars from our previous Hughes program are now attending prestigious graduate schools across the U.S."
NMSU's award comes through HHMI's Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program. On May 20, HHMI announced the new grants that will help universities strengthen undergraduate and precollege science education nationwide.
Fifty research universities in 30 states and the District of Columbia will be awarded a total of $70 million over four years, to develop creative, research-based courses and curricula; to give more students vital experience working in the lab; and to improve science teaching from elementary school through college.