A group of students gets their first hands-on experience of DNA extraction—not an uncommon sight at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech. But these budding scientists aren’t the typical third-year biology majors, They’re a group of fifth graders from elementary schools all around the Commonwealth.
“This is the first time we’ve done this and I have been so impressed,” said Fay Bowen, a teacher at Radford City Schools. “[Students] have come up to me and said, ‘Look, look! This is DNA!’ They’ve really gotten a lot of knowledge out of it.”
This day of scientific firsts was made possible by a unique program offered through Virginia Tech’s College Access Collaborative, a unit of the university dedicated to engaging local communities with below-average rates of high school graduation and college enrollment.
More specifically, many of today’s group of elementary schoolers were able to make the four-hour trek to Tech’s campus thanks to support from Kindergarten to College (K2C.)
This program, founded in 2009, began by providing educational programming for just one school. Now it serves nearly 1000 students from 13 institutions across Virginia.
K2C’s reach is broad by design according to Shernita Lee, an education and outreach specialist at the Biocomplexity Institute. Difficulties such as physical disabilities and limited access to scientific resources shouldn’t prevent any child from experiencing the inside of a lab.
“It’s very important because a lot of programs in science tend to be more geared toward the gifted, or they’ve already participated in the camp where they’ve had exposure,” said Lee. “But that child who may have for instance, a behavioral issue, I want them to still be able to do these activities.”
Co-sponsored by Virgina Tech’s School of Education, the Office of the President, and the Office of the Provost, K2C is part of a growing range of educational programs offered by the Biocomplexity Institute.
“The hope is to just continue to expand the program, and really see the downstream effects of how many actually end up enrolling here at Virginia Tech, or any other higher education institution,“ said Lee.
By providing early, hands-on experiences in the lab, the team hopes to give these children the confidence and passion they’ll need to pursue a career in a highly competitive STEM field. As the kids excitedly discuss their successful DNA extraction experiment, their teacher sees signs of new opportunities on their horizon.
“I think we’ve won some kids over today who may be preparing for a career in science after this,” said Bowen.