First Contact: NJ Middle School Students Meet Microbes Face-to-Face

Yesterday I participated in a fun day of microbial outreach organized by the fabulous students of the Rutgers ASM (American Society for Microbiology) Graduate Student Chapter. The outreach event included about 40 students from grades 5-8, the perfect time to be exposed to real-live microbes! We started with a short Introduction to Microbes lecture by my engaging postdoctoral adviser, Dr. Max Häggbloom. He spoke about “What are microbes?” (clever single-celled organisms, unseen by the naked eye) and touched on several very interesting things bacteria and archaea can do (survive high radiation, live in icy climates, make us sick, make us healthy, generate vaccines and antibiotics).

When he asked for questions at the end of his 30 minute talk, the caliber of the questions asked blew me away! A female student asked whether microbes evolved. Another male student asked whether there were microbes in space (Go, go astrobiology!). I was thrilled to see their interest.

We then broke the group into two sections of 20 students- one section headed for the laboratory upstairs, the other to the classroom where I was volunteering. In the laboratory activity, graduate student volunteers helped the students prepare slides from pure microbial cultures and from yogurt, and to stain the cells in order to observe them under the microscope. Apparently (and I say this because I wasn’t volunteering there myself but heard feedback from the students and volunteers) it was a big fun mess and the students loved seeing the microscopic critters they ate in yogurt and had heard about in the news as well as from parents and teachers!

In the classroom activity, students were separated into four groups of five students and each team got a fancy name: Bacteriawesome, Viralicious, Archaeamazing, and the Funguys. We played a “Microbial Jeopardy” game, with five categories (Microbes in Food, Environment, Medical and Biomedicine, Biomolecules, and Famous Scientists) where the judge went through all 26 questions, starting with easier ones from all categories at $100 points to the most difficult at $500. The Final Jeopardy question allowed teams to bid it all on and double their points if they got the answer right!

Particularly tricky questions merited a discussion, allowing the Rutgers volunteers to showcase their knowledge and talent for explaining concepts simply. All involved had a great time and the members of the winning team got to choose their very own Giant Plush Microbe toy! During the game, some teams were alert and engaged, while others needed a little encouragement. However, with seven enthusiastic student and postdoc volunteers cheering the teams on, winning took backstage to learning something new.

At the end of the classroom activity, we lined the kids up and gave them a little GloGerm gel to rub on their hands. This stuff mimics distribution of bacteria on hands which they can observe under a black light. We then asked them to wash their hands with soap as they normally would at home or school. Then we checked the thoroughness of their washing under a black light again. Students were shocked to discover that their hands were still dirty, especially around the fingernails! The activity taught them that a quick handwashing doesn’t actually accomplish much and they really need to wash for longer in order to get them clean and prevent sickness.

After lunch, we switched groups so that all students participated in both the classroom and laboratory activities. At the end of the day, feedback from parents and students was overwhelming, they all had such a great time and the students all seemed to have their favorite microbial fun-fact. All in all, a productive Saturday reaching out to enthusiastic students and facilitating first “face-to-face” contact with microbes!

Can’t wait to do this again in the summer. Thanks Rutgers ASM Grad Students for organizing the event!

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Comment by Mrinalini Nikrad on April 1, 2015 at 8:54am
Thanks Sara, it really was!

Comment by Sara Imari Walker on February 15, 2015 at 8:58pm

Sounds like a ton of fun!

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