How Museums Are Fostering the Workforce of the Future

The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum gives high school students an inside look at collections, labs and the people who run them

National Museum of Natural History’s new Laboratories of Analytical Biology (LAB)
Technician Maggie Halloran explains to a group of high school students how DNA sequencing works at the National Museum of Natural History’s new Laboratories of Analytical Biology (LAB), a molecular biotechnology hub. Marina Koren

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. 

Students heard about real-world applications of barcoding from Matthew Kweskin, LAB’s IT manager. After a US Airways flight suffered a “bird strike,” forcing Captain Chesley Sullenberger to land the plane in the Hudson River in 2009, authorities shipped bird remains found in the plane’s engine to the Smithsonian for analysis. Researchers entered the DNA sequence extracted from the specimens into the Barcode of Life database, a search engine that parses through countless files of sequenced bird species, and confirmed that the samples were from Canada geese. This data is used to help airfields understand the kind of birds that cause problems at airports.

The tour then moved out of the lab and into the museum’s storerooms, where students got a peek at the invertebrate zoology department’s collections. The final stop was inside the botany department, where collections manager Gregory McKee told the students about the Institution’s plant collections, which holds 4.5 million specimens.

McKee passed around several preserved plants, explaining how researchers collect and preserve them. He harkened back to LAB’s research efforts, saying that DNA sequencing technologies could help explain the mystery of why one species of bamboo flowers blooms only once every 120 years.

“They pay me a little bit of money to go out into the woods and get dirty filthy, and I don’t have to wear a tie,” McKee says of why he loves his job. He told them about meeting a 70-year-old man in Mongolia who was such an expert on botany that he knew just what pinecones to eat, which he scampered up trees himself to retrieve.

“That’s amazing,” says Jesse McElree, a 15-year-old student. The Annapolis native says while he enjoys math most and hopes to become an engineer, McKee’s discussion was the highlight of the tour.

Jacob Mondoro, 15, of Edgewater, also found the botany department to be the most compelling stop on the tour. He too wants to pursue engineering, but says he suspects a career in plant science would be valuable in the future.

“Botany seems like the kind of thing that’s going to be very intense later on due to the global warming situation,” Mondoro says. “Without a proper workforce, there’s not going to be many people who can actually sustain the Earth and the way it needs to be.”

Lab technician Caitlin Baker, who led McElree and Mondoro’s group, says the tour seemed like an eye-opening experience for the freshmen, especially the female students, who were outnumbered.

“I think it’s really empowering to see women in science and doing very cutting-edge research,” Baker says. “I hope that the fact that there are so many more males in this group doesn’t give the girls some sort of sense that it’s a male field. It really isn’t anymore.”

For Lauren Suite, a 14-year-old student from Edgewater, the inside look was informational. “It gave me more of an insight into what I might want to do in the future,” says Suite, who is considering medical research. “I’m trying to stay updated with everything and hopefully be a part of developing new [technologies] in the future.”

Halloran thinks this speed of innovation hit home for the students. Their STEM studies are crucial for preparing them to work with and create 21st-century technologies, even though that by the time they graduate college in just a few years, new technology may have outpaced the tools they witnessed at LAB.

“Everyone thinks it sounds cool to be Jacques Cousteau and go diving and collecting,” Halloran says. “But they really need the whole set of skills to be able to do that. I think the sooner that they have an idea of the scope of all of it, the better it is for them to be able to apply what they’re already learning in high school and making niches for themselves.”