More than 20 years ago, researchers began the 13-year-long process of working with hundreds of sequencing machines to map the entire human genome. Today, the same amount of data can be produced in a matter of a few days to a few weeks, and at a fraction of the cost.
“Smart people like you guys will work on it,” says Maggie Halloran, a sequencing technician, standing before a group of wide-eyed high school freshmen at the National Museum of Natural History’s brand-new Laboratories of Analytical Biology (LAB), a molecular biotechnology hub.
The students are 15 of the 100 that attend a selective science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) magnet program at South River High School in Edgewater, Md. This month, they got a behind-the-scenes look at some of the museum’s collections, its laboratory facilities and the people who run them.
Last year, 28 percent of high school freshmen in the U.S. expressed interest in pursuing a STEM career. However, more than half of these students will lose that interest by the time they’re seniors, according to industry experts. The Smithsonian team at LAB hopes that the students from Edgewater will not fall into that trap.
“The job shadowing clarifies all the myriad of directions that they can go in,” says the high school’s department chair Hillary Catan, who followed along with the group. “When they come in, they might have a more narrow focus or idea of what STEM careers can be, and when they leave they know the world is their oyster.”
Museums can offer the hands-on learning opportunities in the sciences that schools can’t, and their curators know this. The American Museum of Natural History in New York hosts a program that brings together high school students twice a month during the school year and for three weeks in the summer to study science. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans sponsors on-site field trips for middle and high school math and science students to give them a cross-disciplinary lesson in how physics can inform history. In Ohio, the Air Force Museum Foundation hosts workshops for students. All are bolstering young students’ STEM education in hopes of meeting demand for the future’s workforce.
The Smithsonian Institution remains on track to do the same; President Obama has called for $25 million budget increase earmarked for STEM-related programming. The funds will help create online resources for students and allow teachers to combine Smithsonian content with schoolwork. This earmark is part of the administration’s existing $180 million pool of federal funds devoted to STEM programming that is divided up among the Smithsonian, the U.S Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.
The South River High School tour began at the National Museum of Natural History’s soon-to-come Q?RIUS Education Center, a 10,000-square foot space that will house a 20,000-object collection of research, and then quickly moved on to the LAB, where Halleran quizzed the students about the base pairs of DNA, and they answered readily, shouting out, “Guanine and cytosine! Adenine and thymine!”
Smithsonian researcher Amy Driskell explained how she and her colleagues use a process called a polymerase chain reaction to study the DNA of birds and fish. “In the next few years, we’ll have a DNA sequence for every fish—they’ll all be ‘barcoded,’” Driskell says.
Some of these fish come from the Smithsonian’s Deep Reef Observation Project, which collects specimens from Caribbean deep reefs through a five-person submersible. “You’d be 1,000 feet down in the ocean in the time it takes you to get from here back on the bus,” Lee Weigt, LAB’s director, told the group.