On four Saturdays each quarter, about 60 students from low-performing high schools come to UCLA to study science. Their teachers for the day, UCLA undergraduates, do everything they can during the five-hour session to make science understandable and exciting.
That’s the goal of the CityLab program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The program offers huge benefits for both the high schoolers, who come from schools where minorities are underrepresented in the sciences, and the undergrad teachers, says Dwayne D. Simmons, CityLab’s faculty advisor and a professor in Integrative Biology and Physiology.
“The high school students experience what it’s like to be in the UCLA environment and participate in a real lab,” he says. “The undergrads are giving to the community in a fun way, and they’re learning. They know the lessons already, but it’s very different to learn the material well enough to teach it.”
Being able to make dry-sounding topics like gel electrophoresis exciting is part of the appeal for the undergrad teachers, according to Eric Chan, a CityLab co-director and senior majoring in computational and systems biology. “Since we have a lot of control over how we teach, we’re able to make it fun and animated,” he says.
“I love hearing their energy and excitement,” says Chan, who joined the program as a sophomore so he could teach and volunteer at the same time. “It kind of reignites my own passion to remember how rare it is for most people to be able to do these kinds of lab experiments.”
Simmons meets a few times each quarter with the program’s two co-directors. As their faculty adviser, he signs off on purchases of new lab materials and helps maintain a long-term vision for the program.
But it’s the 13 students on the CityLab staff who find and schedule the high schools for visits, charter the buses, develop the curriculum, apply for grants, administer the labs, recruit new members and more. “They’re incredibly self-sufficient,” Simmons says.
Although the undergrads can earn UCLA credit for only two quarters in the program, many return as volunteers. In fact, most of the staff members are in this group, earning no money or credits for their work.
“Seeing the high schoolers ask questions and get into it and change their minds about coming to college is really rewarding,” said Kevin Terashima, a fourth-year neuroscience major and CityLab co-director, who joined the program as a sophomore, “loved it and kept on doing it.”
Terashima and Chan work with about 40 CityLab members. Most are science majors; humanities majors must take science prerequisites in order to join. And all must learn to teach. Using outlines of the curriculum to develop presentations, they do a dry run in front of their peers and incorporate the feedback they receive. On the Friday before the big day, they help set up three to five laboratories that UCLA faculty have volunteered to open up for the weekend program.
On Saturday morning, after a campus tour, the high school students see a series of presentations about one of CityLab’s three specialties: DNA forensics, sickle cell anemia or disease analysis. The day starts with a skit or music-video parody. For example, the DNA video is about a stolen sandwich and the scene of the crime.
Next come in-depth presentations on science and the use of the lab. “We talk about how our lab project, gel electrophoresis, is used in crime-scene analysis,” says Chan. “And there’s a biotechnology presentation, a fun one about innovation and how DNA is used outside of crime-scene analysis.” This is followed by the testing of DNA samples in the lab to compare to the crime scene.
By 2:30, the high schoolers have checked their lab results, reunited for one more skit or musical and are headed home. The UCLA team doesn’t know how many will stick with science, but they are developing tools to track the number that CityLab inspires to attend college and major in science, says Angela Gee, the program’s staff liaison and an academic administrator in the Undergraduate Research Center (URC). (CityLab is housed in the URC, through which the Division of Undergraduate Education under Dean Judith Smith provides some funding.)
But Terashima does know that the students remember CityLab’s videos. “We get really great emails,” he says. “The high schoolers say, ‘I showed this to all my friends, and we’re using this to study for the test because you made it easy to understand.’ That’s really rewarding.”