On a humid, overcast Tuesday afternoon, a bus pulled up to P.S. 230 in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. The BioBus — which is actually a sleek silver science lab on wheels — had already hosted several classes that morning, all in the name of getting students excited about science. On a typical weekday, BioBus hosts six 45-minute classes for up to 30 children. That day at P.S. 230, they were scheduled to teach 23 students.
Community scientists Mollie Thurman and Rosemary Puckett, instructors on the BioBus team, moseyed their way around the bus as the kids examined daphnia, a water flea too small to be visible to the naked eye, through their collection of microscopes. Thurman and Puckett broke down the different parts of the tiny organism during the class. “I love being able to share the clarity of understanding [with the students]. It’s very exciting,” Puckett said.
The microscope is not just a tool to the BioBus team: It’s central to what they do. “[Microscopes teach] that inherent lesson that how you look with your eyes is not all the ways you can see,” Puckett added. And she meant this quite literally: Some of the kids got to see what their own eyes looked like under a microscope, by peering through a microscope on a rolling camera attached to a monitor.
According to the BioBus staff, more than 250,000 K-12 students have boarded their bus since it was founded in 2008, and have experienced hands-on learning with the kind of microscopes you’d normally find in a high-caliber lab. Part of its appeal is helping students understand what science is, outside of the dry material you’d normally find in a textbook. “It’s so engaging,” Thurman said. “Kids sometimes say it’s not like their regular classes.”
BioBus’s goal is to make science interesting and accessible to students at an early age, with a focus on students in low-income and underserved communities. According to a 2018 study by The Pew Research Center, only 9 percent of African-Americans and 7 percent of Hispanic workers have careers in STEM fields. While the study also found that 45 percent of STEM workers surveyed felt that this was because those groups weren’t encouraged at an early age to pursue that career path, they also attribute these rates to a lack of educational opportunities.
Puckett says their mobile lab exists to bridge that gap, bringing hands-on science education to communities that otherwise would not have access to it. After each class, the instructors provide surveys to each school, which teachers are invited to complete anonymously. The consensus: Most schools have found that BioBus is a great opportunity for students to interact with real scientists and have the “wow” experience of using research-grade technology that many schools can’t afford.
While BioBus currently works with underserved schools in New York City, the problem isn’t unique to schools in that area: According to a 2016 report from the nonprofit EdBuild, school districts nationwide serving students of color received a shocking $23 billion less than mostly white school districts with the same number of students.
For now, the BioBus model seems to be working: According to Tessa Hirschfeld-Stoler, one of BioBus’s community scientists, members of their high school internship program have been accepted and enrolled in top research universities such as NYU, Harvard, Cornell and Columbia to pursue careers in science.
If other cities are able to follow their lead, BioBus could potentially set a national model for mobile education by offering students the opportunity for lessons beyond what’s offered in their school’s curricula. To Puckett, the desire to learn isn’t dependent on your geography: “The same thirst for these kind of activities are everywhere,” she said. “It gives us a reason to want to grow.”