Kids Find Summer Science Fun

Friday, May 8, 2015

Mini-Medical School program aims to inspire


By Mark Donahue

Google “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) and “minority students,” and you’ll be inundated with links to a raging discussion over an important question: How can minority students, as a group, catch up with their peers in the sciences?

Enrichment programs have always been an option, but for one local teacher, they needed to go further.

“For students to be adequately prepared to embark on to a medical career, they need to start earlier,” says Carol Giles. “A lot of extracurricular science programs are aimed at seventh and eighth grade, but they need to start before then.”

A biology teacher at Bogan Computer Technical High School in Chicago, Giles has seen many students come out of junior high into her classroom and then move on after graduation to college and job training without any mentoring to pursue health sciences.

Her concerns led her to contact Rush Medical College, which responded by creating the Mini-Medical School program for fourth- through sixth-graders from areas bordering Rush on Chicago’s West Side. These students learn about the body’s systems over six Saturdays in June and July in classes taught by Rush students.

Joy Sclamberg, MD, assistant dean of graduate medical education, on inspiring minority students in health sciences

The program is fast-paced and rigorous, but it’s also fun, with lots of hand-on exercises. George Ziegler, a third-year medical student who’s taught in the program, developed an exercise to demonstrate how the digestive system works. The kids make a model intestine out of panty hose and squish oatmeal through it till it makes a perfectly shaped waste product.

Exercises like these are memorable for the students, to say the least.

“They’re taking out their cell phones and taking pictures,” Ziegler says. “They went from interested to grossed out and back to interested all in the course of ten seconds.”

The Mini-Medical School fascinated Tyrese Byrd, a student at Daniel Webster Elementary School in Chicago, who took part in the program last summer, when he was in fifth grade. “I enjoyed it when we were talking about the heart and how it pumps blood,” he says. “It is one of the most important parts of your body, and without it you would die.”

Organizers hope the Mini-Medical School will spark a similar sense of wonder in other program attendees. Giles feels it can go a long way to helping young minds face big medical textbooks one day.

“We hope it blossoms into an important pipeline for health care careers for kids from the community,” says Keith Boyd, MD, senior associate dean of RMC and a director of the program, which launched in 2013. “The past two summers we have enrolled about 30 kids. This year, we hope to double or even triple that.”

Rewriting the future

As part of this expansion, Mini-Medical School organizers are working with a local venture capitalist to secure funding from donors to cover bussing the students to Rush, lunch and snacks, and school supplies.

The Rush medical students will also offer two seminars over the course of the summer for parents of attendees centering on smoking cessation and nutrition and exercise.

Giles thinks it’s a promising development. She recognizes that many students face challenges at home — poverty and health concerns, among them. She also knows that from these difficulties can come a unique strength that draws on what’s learned in the classroom.   

“The battle that they’re fighting is large,” she says. “But they overcome it because often the people who have a lot of challenges come up with some innovative ways to get where they want to go.”

The future she sees includes kids like Tyrese Byrd, whom the Mini-Medical School has inspired to aim high.

“I want to become a brain surgeon one day,” he says.

Interested parents and students can get more information on the program here.