BioBus, a mobile science lab housed inside a school bus, has been offering hands-on, interactive lessons to students across the city since 2008.
Based in the Lower East Side, the organization also has a BioBase, where students work on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs and projects.
The BioBus was parked in front of P.S. 212 in Jackson Heights on Friday morning. A fourth grade class with more than 30 students climbed aboard, worksheets in hand, and were split into two groups.
Each group had a chance to work with laser microscopes to get a closer look at Daphnia, a microscopic shrimp-like animal found in ponds and puddles.
The lesson, facilitated by scientists at BioBus, asked the elementary school students to make observations about the animal. Students pointed out its beating heart, its brain and digestive system. As the lesson came to a close, students were still buzzing about what they had seen.
That’s what Dr. Ben Dubin-Thaler, the organization’s founder and executive director, hopes to inspire.
Dubin-Thaler came up with the idea of providing interactive programs on a bus when he was a doctoral student at Columbia University. He had moved to New York City for college in 1996, and saw what he called “incredible levels of inequality in our society,” which caused a personal change.
“It caused me a lot of grief and angst trying to find out how I can effectively work towards reducing that inequality,” he said.
After taking a job as a research assistant after college, Dubin-Thaler went back to Columbia to complete his education. When he saw how powerful it was for students to visit a lab and see live cells crawling around under a microscope, he knew the potential it had to spark young minds into further their science education.
“So many people would come in, from young students to the janitor who worked on the floor of my building, and say, ‘this is amazing, I didn’t know this is what science was like,’” Dubin-Thaler said. “That’s the idea of the bus – bringing the same kind of research lab that I worked in during my Ph.D. to people who would never otherwise have the opportunity to have that experience.”
In 2007, Dubin-Thaler bought a bus on Craigslist. In spring 2008, he hosted his first classes.
Dubin-Thaler said he has five or six classes of students visit the bus per day. That’s a total of between 150 to 180 students daily.
BioBus also provides lessons about invertebrate diversity, microscopic ecosystems and regents prep courses, among others. Dubin-Thaler said they also offer a program in environmental sustainability, which he called “the most pressing scientific question of our day.”
He said it’s a challenge to fit the science lessons into a curriculum set by the Department of Education, but it’s a challenge that BioBus has embraced.
“We’ve figured out ways to really integrate it effectively,” he said. “Part of that has to do with making sure that the scientific concepts that we’re delving into on the bus are aligned by the science standards in each grade level, which we’ve been able to do without too much trouble.”
Unlike simply reading about scientific topics from a textbook, BioBus provides an opportunity for students to actually visualize and use microscopes to zoom in on living organisms.
“You can read that in a textbook and it’s one thing, but actually taking some of your own cells, putting it under the microscope, staining your DNA and watching that DNA glow under a florescence microscope and then taking a picture home with you is a completely different way of learning,” Dubin-Thaler said.
PS 212 teacher Carolann Ackerler said the BioBus was clearly inspiring her students.
“When a child can see that this is science and this is what’s out there for them if they study, it’s fantastic,” Ackerler said. “And I’m sure a lot of the kids are going to go home and ask for microscopes.”
She added that if BioBus comes back, she’s “game” to have her students participate again.
“They are so motivated right now,” she said. “Nowadays you’re competing with the iPads and video games, so this is making me very happy.”
Reactions from parents and students have been positive, according to Dubin-Thaler. He constantly receives emails from parents whose students have already been on BioBus and ask about their classes.
“They say, ‘my kid came back from the BioBus and they wouldn’t stop talking all night about this incredible experience they had,’” he said. “A lot of times, that’s what motivates the parents to sign their students up for in-depth classes.”
For Dubin-Thaler, the feedback is often what motivates him to keep the bus going.
“It’s one of the things that gets us up on cold winter days like these,” he said.