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November 20, 2008

Science rocks – and rolls on

Pitt’s biological sciences outreach program hopes to get a lot of mileage out of a new mobile lab designed to spark middle- and high-schoolers’ interest and science knowledge.

Last week, the University rolled out a 70-foot tractor-trailer equipped with 26 lab stations to enable students to conduct experiments they might not be able to in their regular classrooms. Presentations focused on genetics, natural selection and molecular biology are among the programs that can be offered, said Alison Slinskey Legg, director of the outreach program.

Pitt’s current outreach programs serve some 4,000 students a year and provide summer professional development workshops for teachers to help them keep pace with scientific advances.

Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) director Steven Reis, associate vice chancellor for clinical research, said, “This is all about the kids, about their education and about engaging them in science.”

CTSI purchased the mobile laboratory for $120,000 and will support its operation with $25,000 per year. ThermoFisher Scientific is providing equipment and lab supplies.

The truck, covered with images of school children and the words “Science Rocks!” splashed in big blue letters, made its debut outside the Cathedral of Learning Nov. 10, then rolled out to stop at the Carnegie Science Center’s SciTech festival.

Visits to area schools are expected to begin in December.

“There’s a huge list of teachers who want us to come out,” said assistant outreach coordinator Thomas Seiflein, who will coordinate the visits.

The mobile lab will cover an area ranging from Meadville/Erie in the north to Greene County in the south to Johnstown in the east, Legg said. A typical stop will last two or three days with two Pitt faculty members facilitating activities.

Pitt’s mobile lab is the result of an effort begun in 2005 by the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse.

Two federal grant programs are funding the lab: the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), which specializes in K-12 education outreach and supports Pitt’s biology outreach program with a five-year, $1.27 million award; and the Clinical and Translational Science Award, which promotes the transfer of medical research from the lab to the patient care setting. Pitt received an $83.5 million grant from this program in 2006.

About 20 mobile science labs are on the road nationwide; most are university-based, said Tony Beck, SEPA program officer. Pitt’s lab is the first to pair the two federal programs in such a project, said Barbara Alving, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Research Resources.

Alving noted the mobile lab not only strengthens the pipeline for tomorrow’s scientists and researchers by sparking students’ interest in science careers, but also fosters a health-literate population that understands science and research.

—Kimberly Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 7

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