Lorre asks them, “You like science, right?”
“Yeah!” they answer.
And then she asks, “You like the experiments, right?”
“Well then you need math!” she responds, laughing.
She explains that each Saturday they go through a lesson and do an experiment with elementary school students in the second to fifth grade. Lorre works with The Science Education Academy Inc., in partnership with White Rock Baptist Church Ministry to Youth & Children and the E. E. Just Biomedical Society of the University of Pennsylvania. The driving motivation behind the program is the lack of basic scientific exposure in early education, particularly at the elementary level. Instead, schools are focusing on math and reading, primarily due to pressures to increase standardized test scores. While this focus on math and reading is not necessarily a poor choice, it leaves students with little scientific experience and thus fewer students choose to enter the field for advanced studies.
In addition to volunteering for the Saturday Science Lessons, Lorre was involved in planning and executing the first annual Science Carnival at the White Rock Baptist Church. “There were over 50 children (K-6) and their parents. We also had over 40 volunteers including 24 students from the University of Pennsylvania in Biomedical Graduate Studies, School of Engineering, Earth and Environmental sciences and the Chemistry Department. We also had enthusiastic high school chaperones.”
“The best part of it is seeing the kids, seeing their eyes light up! And watching them get it. Watching them fall in love with science. Those are the things I didn’t get as a kid growing up. Some of the resources just weren’t there when I lived in Jamaica.”
Lorre grew up in Jamaica and moved to the US to attend Johns Hopkins University as an undergraduate majoring in biomedical engineering. Today, she is a fourth year PhD student in the UPenn Bioengineering Department, studying traumatic brain injury using finite element modeling techniques in Susan Margulies’ lab.
She says that she is so drawn to this type of outreach because she wants to pass on both her knowledge and passion for science. “This is the fun part of science. We become PhDs and little by little it’s eaten away…” she says laughing. “Sorry! But you know what I mean. It gets over-run by the politics. You write a paper and then you are just submitting it over and over. You almost forget why you started, right? It’s good to do these things for me to be reminded—oh yeah I remember this! The magic of science [comes back]. It’s about not losing sight of the joy of science.”
“I feel like it’s so easy to get channeled into your own little field…you know everything and then you’re skeptical and pessimistic about everything. Nothing works! So it’s nice when you can go and talk to kids. I love it! They get so visibly excited. I think that’s the best part.”
And the carnival sounded really fun. It opened with an egg drop experiment to discuss pressure and covered a wide range of topics including microbes, the spread of disease, how planes fly, and the mysteries of chemistry. SEA looks forward to making this an annual event as a supplement to the Philadelphia School District science curriculum and as a conduit for public scientific education.
Lorre tells us that this supplementation is important because many young students, particularly minority students that she works with, need mentoring along the way in order to succeed in classes and enter scientific fields. Part of it, Lorre explains, is as simple as, “Realizing that someone who looks like them can do good things, can go pursue science.” Her work with minority school districts in both Baltimore and Philadelphia has taught her a lot about the crucial need for mentoring. “You need mentoring, you need everything you can, just to get people into science and engineering, because it’s so hard.”
And the challenges are not over when a student makes it into an engineering undergraduate program. Lorre’s experience at Johns Hopkins definitely had bumps along the way. “You’re coming in and you are not just the only female [in some classes], but you are limited by race as well. This [the work load] is hard, everyone around you is struggling. People form their cliques and tend to stay with people they are familiar with. People don’t want to work with you.” You can imagine that this would be incredibly hard to deal with in challenging classes where other people are working together on problem sets and you have nowhere to turn.
I feel like it’s so easy to get channeled into your own little field…you know everything and then you’re skeptical and pessimistic about everything. Nothing works! So it’s nice when you can go and talk to kids. I love it! They get so visibly excited. I think that’s the best part.”
Lorre was fortunate to overcome these initial challenges and by her junior year was feeling pretty confident in both her skills as an engineer and her interpersonal relationships. Although starting out at Hopkins was a difficult transition, “Hopkins was just opening up the floodgates of opportunities.” That was when she first became involved in after school scientific mentoring and became passionate about bioengineering research. When she came to Penn for her PhD, she tells us that, “Penn was the perfect fit for me. [There is an] active student community, people actually engaging with each other.”
Right now, she’s beginning to think about what’s next after her PhD is complete. “Right now I’m at a PhD level. Do I see myself becoming faculty? No. And I do wonder what sort of societal pressure I’m being influenced by that make me think, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that.’ And maybe I’ll change my mind, I’ve changed my mind before. But I doubt it.” She tells us that she can see herself as a teacher—a role she is clearly passionate about already. “I like teaching, I like communicating with people.” And, she notes that often people who are skilled researchers or scientists do not translate into the best teachers. “One of the things I’ve seen from [Johns] Hopkins is that it’s difficult for faculty to be very good teachers and perform well in the research. I feel like you definitely have to choose. And if I had to choose I would choose teaching.”
One thing she would definitely like to do is return to her high school in Jamaica and work with students there. “Just going back and organizing engineering competitions. It would really mean a lot to go back and organize some of the things I didn’t have. That’s something I’ve thought about. And maybe doing it every year…just let them know that these fields exist.”
Until then, you’ll find Lorre leading the Science Lessons at SEA or planning next year’s Science Carnival… just bringing a little science magic along with her. ;)