A $1.2 million grant the National Institutes of Health recently awarded to Montana State University will enable nearly 150 Montana high school 4-H students to conduct research and learn about careers in bioscience over the next four years.
The program, “Science Montana: Engaging 4-H Teens with Bioscience Research,” will bring 36 Montana 4-H students to the MSU campus each August for four years, for a total of 144 participants. While at MSU, the students will participate in a week-long science camp focused on biomedical research. Adult 4-H volunteers, who will participate in some labs and also attend special sessions to learn about technology, will accompany the students to campus.
At the camp’s conclusion, students will go back to their home communities and continue researching, completing projects and interacting with their classmates and professors. The program uses distance learning technologies and social media to connect youth in rural areas throughout the project year. Finally, at the end of the year, the students will return to campus to present their research findings at the annual 4-H Congress. The participants will also share public health-related information by developing interactive multimedia projects and presenting in their communities.
Those at MSU who are leading the free, multi-faceted program note that it has numerous strengths, but one really stands out.
“The really cool thing about this program is that we’ll be enhancing science through things we know kids are interested in,” said Jill Martz, director of the 4-H Center for Youth Development at MSU.
“To some kids, science seems very intimidating. This program should help them realize it’s already part of their everyday world,” she added.
Students will work directly with MSU professors and graduate and undergraduate students to experience various types of research, including basic research that creates new knowledge as well as applied and translational research that uses knowledge to solve problems and improve quality of life, according to Kim Obbink, the director of MSU’s Extended University who is also closely involved in the program.
The terms may be daunting to some students, but they might be surprised to find out that they already have scientific experience.
“Say kids are training their horse or dog, that’s neuroscience,” Martz said. “We’re trying to make connections between science and things they’re really interested in. We’re trying to show they can be scientists, because they’re already scientists.”
Examples of topics the students will study include infectious diseases, such as West Nile virus, human metabolism, historical comparisons of blood types within families and behavioral modifications to enhance health.
Martz noted the program is also designed to be hands-on.
“We want kids to experience what they’re learning,” she said. “It enhances their skill development if they’re actually involved.”
The grant was made through an NIH program known as SEPA, or Science Education Partnership Awards. The program is designed to improve life science literacy throughout the nation through innovative educational programs.
And, its ultimate goal is to encourage more rural youth to consider bioscience-related careers. According to Martz and Obbink, a large need exists for a program of the kind.
“Many of our rural schools do not have lab facilities to offer in-depth science experiences,” Martz said. “That’s part of the need.
“We’re also reaching out to Native American youth and females, who are both underrepresented in science fields, as well as lower-income levels.”
Obbink noted that young people in rural areas often aren’t exposed to all the career fields they might eventually consider.
“There are great role models and committed mentors in rural areas, but kids who live far from a city or university may not know about the wide variety of health science careers available to them,” she said.
Still, Obbink said that developing kids’ interest in research and science is a challenge found not only in Montana, but also across the nation.
“We used to worry about girls not going into science. Now it’s everybody; both genders,” she said.
SEPA addresses some of the challenges by providing research experiences for the students and connecting them with research professionals, college students who serve as mentors and peers with similar interests.
In addition, Obbink said that an independent researcher will gather data to evaluate the effectiveness of the program, particularly the online delivery component.
“We know that young people use technology in more ways than ever before,” Obbink said. “This project will help scientists and educators better understand how to use new communication tools most effectively to reach the next generation of scientists.”
The information will be shared with other universities and 4-H programs for greater impact. All of the project’s content, activities and resources, as well as digital materials developed by the youth participants, will be shared with 4-H leaders and educators throughout the country via the Web.
Martz and Obbink hope that the program will not only spark kids’ interest in science, but that it will also provide useful information about distance learning and serve as a model for collaborations within a university. Three different MSU entities – Extension, Extended University and the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience – are involved.
MSU’s research enterprise is highly regarded and makes it a particularly appropriate setting for a program of this kind, Obbink said. The university is among just two percent of all colleges and universities in the U.S. with “very high research activity,” according to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The top tier classification recognizes the significant opportunities for research, scholarship and creative work at MSU. Other institutions in the highest research classification include Harvard, MIT and University of California, Berkeley. MSU is the only institution in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and South Dakota to achieve this designation.
And, because biomedical research is recognized as one of MSU’s great strengths, Montana State is a particularly fitting place to learn about bioscience, Obbink said. For example, of the approximately $100 million annually MSU wins in competitive grants for research, roughly $40 million of that goes to studying everything from influenza, to heart disease, to using parts of viruses for pinpoint delivery of drugs, to examining plants for medicinal properties, to exploring ways to keep horses and cattle healthy and safe from a variety of infectious agents.
In addition, MSU’s Cooley Laboratory is currently undergoing a $17 million renovation, which will transform the lab into a state-of-the-art facility for faculty and students conducting research. MSU plans to open the facility in 2012.
Individuals interested in applying to the “Science Montana: Engaging 4-H Teens with Bioscience Research” program may do so by contacting their county Extension agent. Through an application process, nine different counties in Montana will be selected each year to have a team of four students, plus one adult supervisor, participate in the program. The first group will begin in August 2012.