At 7:45 a.m. on a dark, cold, Thursday morning, the Laurel High School students in Hameed Sharif’s biology class looked less than enthused as they listened to a talk about carbon and aspirin synthesis.
Their enthusiasm rose when they donned lab coats and gloves to create their own aspirin with the help of a science education research team from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research consisting of four post-baccalaureate students.
Supported by a Science Education Partnership Award from the National Institutes of Health, the team from Walter Read visits two of Sharif’s biology classes once a week, providing a lesson and lab inline with Sharif’s curriculum.
“They do it all,” Shariff said. “They bring everything. They set up everything and break it all down. It’s a great thing.”
Laurel High School was selected for the program after an evaluation during the 2016/2017 school year that looked at the school’s demographics, science classes, scores in the science field and teachers’ willingness to work with a team, according to Emily Kuehn, a National Research Council Fellow. Northwestern and Bladensburg high schools have had the program in the past.
For the 2017/2018 school year, Sharif’s two comprehensive biology classes- not honors or IB (international baccalaureate classes) classes – were selected for the program.
“I would never do a lab like this with them,” Sharif said, as he watched his class of 30 students measure chemicals and use the fume hood. “Class sizes are too large.”
For the aspirin lab, Sharif’s students were divided into four groups, each under the direction of a mentor and each with their own equipment and supplies.
When Sharif does a lab, it is just him presiding over the class.
“It does make a difference,” Sharif said. “A lot of students have the ability but never get the experience. This is how science should be done all the time.”
The mentors, Kuehn said, are a key part of the program.
“Students feel comfortable with mentors…they are close in age,” Kuehn said. “We have the same mentors throughout the school year. Students really do well with consistent mentors. They foster a relationship.”
“I never had a mentor like this at this age,” said Kimberly Aguilar, the team leader. “I feel it is critical. We are more relatable to them. They look forward to this part of the week.”
Shuffling around their lab tables, students mixed, weighed and cooked various ingredients in the pursuit of making aspirin, commenting on the vinegar-like odor “that smelled horrible.”
“It sparked my interest. Everybody should be able to do this,” said JaDarhi Williams, 15, a sophomore, who went on to explain his favorite past labs in the class.
“Dissecting a termite and holding a really big roach,” Williams said. “I was scared. I had never held a roach before.”
Markelis Escoto, 15, a freshman, also commented on the cockroach lab, which dealt with the effects of caffeine.
“It made it all hyper,” Escoto said. “We also dissected a frog and saw the brain of a sheep.”
Sharif noted that none of those labs would have been possible if the team had not provided everything.
“I don’t have giant cockroaches and termites,” Sharif said. “This is good for all of them. The more students we can get involved in things, the better. Getting students interested and keeping them interested. This is how you do it. This takes time, materials, resources and people.”
The program will finish atthe end of the school year with limited support available the following year as well as access to various curriculums.
“It’s exciting to see how kids react to it,” Kuehn said. “We are seeing real significant improvements. Teachers love the program.”