Science labs go mobile to bring tools, inspiration to students

Carl Franzblau, professor and chairman of the Department of Biochemistry at Boston University Medical School, wanted to expose more young people to science. Then, he says, he had a vision, inspired by a bloodmobile.

The result — mobile science laboratories that bring science education to students — is expanding across the USA.

Mobile labs are active in at least 10 states and are an important tool in attracting young people to the so-called STEM courses — science, technology, engineering and math, Franzblau says. The labs are buses or semis outfitted with the basics of science education: electricity, distilled water, freezers and refrigerators, scales, microscopes and even computer systems in some cases, he says. They are designed to travel to schools that don't have the resources to teach modern science to students, but they also are crucial in providing training to teachers in a field that can see a new discovery change curriculums overnight.

"I felt that we had to give something back to the community, and what better way than starting to educate some of our socio-economic-deprived students to become interested in science?" Franzblau says.

What began in 1998 with one bus and BU's CityLab program has grown to at least 13 vehicles. The most recent lab is being equipped at St. Cloud (Minn.) State University after Medtronic donated one of the semis it once used as a mobile classroom to teach physicians how to use Medtronic products such as defibrillators.

Other mobile lab programs exist in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, South Dakota and Texas.

"We're very excited about having this resource in our midst," says Greg Vandal, superintendent in the Sauk Rapids-Rice (Minn.) school district, which will benefit from the mobile lab at St. Cloud State. "We all struggle with having state-of-the-art equipment and resources in an area (of study) that moves so quickly. Discovery in science is a moment-by-moment phenomenon. We teach in areas of curriculum that are ever-changing. We have the opportunity for a truly state-of-the-art experience."

Franzblau got the idea when he was giving blood at a bloodmobile. Why can't we put a lab in a bus or semi, he thought, and equip it with furnishings of the mobility and space-saving type that are used in airplanes?

"The mobile lab gives teachers a chance to see the science, context and pedagogy unfold in real time with real students in a space that's at their school," says Don DeRosa, director of Boston's CityLab and MobileLab programs.

Potential targets for the science lab in Minnesota are school districts that don't have the equipment, infrastructure or staff to provide the training or keep up with curriculum changes. And the smallest school districts in the state face the biggest challenges, says Bruce Jacobson, associate professor of biology and director of biobusiness outreach for St. Cloud State.

In Minnesota, 62% of schools have fewer than 100 students in their graduating classes, he says. Those are the schools he is targeting.

"This is not because people are doing a bad job," Jacobson says. "It's because people are doing a difficult job, and we have a responsibility to help provide the tools people need to do that job."

Unze reports for the St. Cloud (Minn.) Times