By: Ananya Sen
Advances in genomic studies have now permeated all aspects of our lives from agriculture to health and wellness. It is therefore becoming increasingly important to help the community understand these innovations so that they can navigate the increasingly complex realm of genomics. To this end, the outreach team at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology is planning to construct, staff, and operate a mobile STEM lab.
There is a pressing need for STEM interventions for underrepresented minorities and low-income students in Illinois: 53% of the students are low-income, and that number jumps to 91% in Chicago. Concerningly, the highest poverty districts in Illinois receive 22% less student funding than the lowest poverty districts, the worst disparity rate in the country. Over 83% of Illinois school districts are underfunded, and this funding disparity contributes to 20% of all Illinois schools being ranked as “underperforming” or “lowest performing.” Statewide, 50% of all students are deemed not proficient in science. Therefore, there is a need for interventions that can provide the necessary STEM learning experiences.
The IGB has always been interested in public engagement, conducting a diverse range of activities over the past seven years which have catered to over 10,000 participants. With this new approach the outreach team aims to clarify the role of genomics in all aspects of life, stressing the importance of science literacy for non-scientists.
With the help of a $26,900 grant from Illumina Inc. and the Illumina Corporate Foundation, the IGB Gene Drive will deliver hands-on engagement with genomics research in areas including genetically modified organisms, microbiomes, antibiotic resistance, CRISPR, and personalized health. “Growing up in a small, rural Illinois community, it means the world to me to be partnering with the IGB on the mobile STEM lab,” said Melissa Spears, a Senior Staff Customer Experience Culture Specialist at Illumina. “I am humbled and proud that Illumina and the IGB are “driving” genomics forward in districts where this would otherwise not be possible.”
“We are very excited to receive Illumina’s enthusiastic support for this new endeavor. They have also generously donated an iSeq 100 Sequencing System for our mobile lab,” said Daniel Urban, the IGB Senior Outreach Coordinator, who worked with Illumina to secure the grant.
The IGB Gene Drive’s mission is to provide research experiences for populations that have been traditionally underserved in STEM education. They will focus on the urban core of Chicago and St. Louis, and rural areas throughout the Midwest. To this end, the team will be partnering with the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, who have agreed to provide a bus for these efforts. The completely self-contained and state-of-the-art mobile lab will allow the team to travel to economically and educationally disadvantaged locations, providing these communities with the opportunity to access equipment that is usually limited to highly funded institutions.
The mobile lab will also provide volunteering opportunities for the scientists at the IGB who represent the diversity of age, gender, race, and ethnicities that are required at any research institute. Together with these volunteers, the IGB Gene Drive will create novel content for the mobile STEM curricula that will address the concerns of different communities. The students will learn science by using the tools and technology necessary to conduct research and, hopefully, will make some interesting discoveries. The IGB Gene Drive will also develop a network of schools, libraries, and community centers who are committed to implementing science education that will meaningfully connect to the unique life experiences of their learners.
“At Illumina, we are dedicated to providing equitable STEM education to students and we know proximity to science centers and programs is a barrier to accessing unique opportunities,” said Vanessa Light, the STEM Education Program Manager at Illumina. “By supporting the Mobile STEM Lab at the IGB, we can help bring hands-on activities, the latest technology, and exposure to careers directly to our future scientists, engineers, and innovators.”
To volunteer, contact Daniel Urban at email@example.com.
By: Ananya Sen
Photos By: Mirhee Lee