PROMISE lab shows kids they can do science

Lab combines fun, facts and field trips to and from Sanford Research

A lab instructor is surrounded by middle school students during an experiment.

Any guesses about what would motivate a bunch of middle schoolers to spend nearly seven hours total on a bus scheduled to leave at 6:45 a.m. on their day off from school?

A really popular concert? A pro sports game?

Who would guess … a science lab?

But 16 motivated White River, South Dakota, eighth graders did get up early to make a recent trek from the middle of the state, east to Sioux Falls and back in one day, all for science. Their destination: the Sanford PROMISE Community Laboratory at Sanford Research.

To be clear, the students were all motivated enough to get on the bus, but they didn’t all have high expectations. What they watched and learned and experienced changed their minds. They relished becoming scientists for the day.

“I actually thought it was going to be boring until we got here, and we started doing all kinds of stuff, and it was really fun,” said one White River eighth grader, Shawn Bordeaux.

The lab-coated kids gathered on rolling chairs around tables in groups of four. They laughed, collaborated and engaged with each other while trying their hand at gel electrophoresis. That’s a lab method of analyzing DNA most eighth graders have never heard of, let alone tried themselves.

Science for all

Now, the point of the White River kids’ visit to the Sanford PROMISE (Program for the Midwest Initiative in Science Exploration) Community Lab wasn’t to help them master a new scientific technique — one that could take months, even for scientists.

It also wasn’t to turn all 16 into research-scientist wannabes, although that certainly would be a welcome outcome.

Rather, the Sanford PROMISE Community Lab and other outreach efforts open wide the research lab door. They aim to show ordinary people that they don’t have to think of science, or scientists, as mysterious or theoretical or unapproachable.

After all, science touches each of our lives every day. The water we drink, the smartphone we stare at, the skeleton and skin we each inhabit — fundamentally, it’s all science. A few people may know one field intimately, but even if we all just know something about a field, we benefit. Society benefits. A better understanding can help us make smarter decisions and take better care of our families and our communities.

Asking questions like a scientist helps, too, according to Amy Baete, who is the director of K-12 PROMISE Science Exploration, which includes the lab.

“It’s just instilling in them that it’s OK to ask questions and seek proof,” Baete said. “That’s a life skill versus just a skill to be a scientist. So as you go through and learn, and you’re a student throughout your life, ask questions. Seek proof. Challenge the ideas that are in front of you.”

How helpful to learn these life lessons young.

PROMISE Lab overlooks research spaces

Students ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade who come into the PROMISE Lab have a literal window into Sanford Research. The PROMISE Lab overlooks a vast warehouse space of nearly 20 research labs outlined by workbenches, with pieces of equipment interspersed throughout. Classes also can tour that area.

The PROMISE Lab, with seating for 24, has hosted more than 9,000 visitors since opening in 2011. Its walls are lined with shelves holding real tools of science — not just “kid” versions — that the visiting classes get to use in a lesson prepared by the Sanford Research educator.

Ideally, the class has studied the lesson topic a bit in advance. The educator works beforehand with the classroom teacher, who can incorporate it into lesson plans before the visit and after.

The White River students’ experiment, for example, related to cancer research and involved DNA from a cancer patient’s cells. So before the students came to the lab, in social studies they had read about Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells (“HeLa” cells). They learned that in 1951, Lacks went to The Johns Hopkins Hospital with a cervical tumor containing cells that uniquely kept multiplying in the lab rather than dying out. Although she died of cancer later that year, her line of cells has been used in research ever since for studies and tests about diseases ranging from cancer to polio.

Prepping for the trip

White River Middle School Principal George Shipley accompanied the students. He listed other ways they prepped before arriving. They read about human and animal testing, and about Sanford Research and its researchers. In English and Language Arts class, they developed questions based on what they had learned.

“It allowed us to cross-reference three of our classes into this topic,” Shipley said. “Then once we got here, now when they ask us, ‘Does anyone have any questions?’, instead of crickets, we’ve got prepared questions that the kids had.”

Benjamin Benson, who led the White River students through their lab experience, has been a science educator for Sanford Research for three years. Benson’s background qualifies him well to bridge education and research in lessons. He spent five years as a high school teacher before he earned a master’s degree in computational biology and then worked in a lab at Sanford Research.

During the classes’ visits, Benson invites a researcher to come in to speak to the kids. When the kids have relevant questions, “the scientists really enjoy that,” Benson said. “It makes the kids’ experience a lot better.”

Through the lab time, students get a real sense of what science is like in activities appropriate for their age. It might just help shape their future.

“As you watch kids get older, they often have this idea somewhere between elementary and middle school where they decide that they’re not good at science,” Benson said. “So one of the other things that we try to do is give them a positive experience with science so that they can really go ahead and cling to it and be like, ‘Oh, well, I had this really fun time at science. I’m gonna keep trying.’ Because science is a lot more persistence than it is brilliance.”

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Notes from kids who have visited Sanford Research's PROMISE Community Lab hang on a bulletin board in a hallway of Sanford Research.

Reaching students

Sanford Research itself is an unusual endeavor for the region. It’s under a health system, Sanford Health, with more than 250 researchers working in diverse areas such as diabetes, rare diseases and behavioral science. Adding the growing PROMISE program on top of that? “I think it’s safe to say no other health system or research system has an outreach program of this magnitude in the Midwest,” Baete said.

The benefits to classroom teachers and students — or homeschool or after-school groups — extend way beyond trips to the PROMISE Lab. While 50 groups might come into the lab in a year, the program’s goal is to reach many more students with the concept that science research is fun — and close to them.

So Sanford Research participates in community events and state conferences. It has hosted science exploration events at different times for large groups of elementary, middle and high schoolers. During the 2018-19 school year, for example, 1,400 elementary students participated. High schoolers have the opportunity to job shadow at Sanford Research. Next April, the PROMISE program will engage kids of all ages at the 2020 “It’s All About Science” festival. And even if a kid just wants help with a science fair project, the PROMISE program is happy to help.

Resources for teachers

The outreach efforts extend resources to teachers as well. Recognizing that school funding for extras is typically quite limited, Sanford Research tries to offer opportunities for free or at a low cost. For example, schools can apply for scholarships to help with expenses for a class traveling to visit the PROMISE Lab.

In addition, if teachers have a project in mind but lack equipment or supplies or knowledge, the PROMISE Lab can help contribute all of those. The lab’s lending library can ship out an incubator to a microbiology teacher or even electrophoresis supplies and information for a teacher to conduct an experiment similar to the White River students’ project.

The PROMISE program even kind of lends out a scientist. Benson makes it a priority to travel to several classrooms at South Dakota schools throughout the school year. He talks with kids and does some science activities. At the same time, he checks out the classroom’s fundamentals to help with lending decisions later. Does it have glassware? A sink that’s easy to use? Close electrical outlets? Benson had visited the White River eighth graders earlier in the school year, so he had a sense of what they were capable of doing in their classroom before they came to the PROMISE Lab.

Out traveling, Benson never knows where a science connection will come — maybe even in an English class.

“We had a group that came in and did a unit where they have a bioliterature class,” he said. “So they were reading ‘Frankenstein,’ and then they came in here, and they dissected mice. We talked about how we look at all of the different organs and how they’re organized.”

Teachers can give ‘a better experience’

Teachers also can take advantage of professional development opportunities. In a three-day session, they can learn several lessons and scientific techniques and adapt them for their own classrooms. For teachers close to Sanford Research, it’s a convenient way to take continuing education credits. They can also borrow equipment later for their classroom.

“When I talk to teachers,” Baete said, “they are always thankful for the opportunity to have something that’s free or low cost because everything that they do in their classrooms typically is not in the budget. So they’re always looking for ways to give their kids a better experience.”

You can count George Shipley among educators who are determined to provide opportunities for their students. In addition to participating in the Sanford Research program, he sends different grades of White River middle schoolers to places such as Ellsworth Air Force Base; camping in the Badlands; the Women in Science conference in Pierre; and a science camp at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

“We want them to see the people who are scientists. Scientists are young. Scientists are cool. Scientists are men and women,” Shipley said.

“We hope that they see scientists as people, rather than some guy that’s wearing a white lab coat and blowing things up all the time,” Benson said. “Like, it’s a person that maybe had struggles in school.”

‘Where you sneak the education in’

The tour of the Sanford Research lab gave student Shawn Bordeaux a better understanding of what scientists do.

“Every area has a different position and different people that work in a specific position. I always thought they just gathered in a room and talked about the same thing all day until I learned about all the different jobs,” Shawn said.

Fellow eighth grader LaQuita Black Lance found inspiration during her visit to the PROMISE Lab. “Now that I know that this is a job you can do, it sounds fun to do in the future and learn more about it.”

It sounds like Shipley’s goal for the trip was met.

“What we really want to do is develop self-advocacy in our kids,” he said. “We want them to have the confidence to know that they can do science.”

For rural kids who live an hour and a half from the nearest Walmart, a special stop on the drive home at Walmart and a Chinese restaurant topped off the long day.

“Part of middle school is building social skills,” Shipley added. “So the socialization of the bus ride here, the whole experience here being a total positive experience, that when they think about the day, they’re just going to be positive from the time they got on the bus to the time they got off the bus. So this part is kind of where you sneak the education in.”

Fun with a dash of education?

You could probably call that a goal of the entire PROMISE program, too.

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