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Young Scientists Mentoring Younger Scientists

Country School students share biotech activities with students in New London after-school program as part of biotech grant

by Liz Lightfoot '77 P '05, '07, '08, '12
Alumni Relations, Community Outreach, and IDEA Parent-Teacher Alliance

Country School science students and their teacher, Dr. Amy Cornell, have been bringing cellular and microbiology concepts to students at Child and Family Agency’s B.P. Learned Mission in New London as part of the school’s $10,000 biotech grant from Avantor Sciences Foundation. In addition to creating a middle school biotechnology program that focuses on DNA technology, the grant enables Country School students to bring real-world science learning to local underrepresented communities.

Dr. Cornell and middle school student volunteers have been taking part in an 8-week after school program at B.P. Learned. On the first visit, Dr. Cornell introduced basic science principles, sharing a bit about her earlier career as a scientist working for NASA, and then inviting them to engage in three hands-on experiments.

In the first experiment, the group tested what would happen to a carrot if it was placed in a beaker of salt water (a beaker of fresh water with a second carrot was used as a control). In the second, they tested what would happen to an shell-less egg that was submerged in sugar water vs. a shell-less egg submerged in plain tap water. And in the third experiment, students were invited to test different areas around their activities classroom, using a swab and petri dish with agar to determine which areas contained the most bacteria.

Planning their swabbing experiment as a Country School volunteer looks on.

Testing the clock for bacteria.

At the end of the first session, Dr. Cornell told students she would take the samples back to the incubator at her lab at The Country School and return the following Friday with the specimens so students could assess the results. “Do we have to wait a week?” one young participant asked plaintively. 

His question prompted a more philosophical discussion about science and some of the qualities scientists must develop. "You have to have a lot of patience when you're a scientist," Dr. Cornell said, adding that scientists also have to learn how to handle failure. "There's a lot of failure in science, and that's a good thing."
"How is that a good thing?" the student asked.

"It's a good thing because then you learn from it," Dr. Cornell responded.

"Yeah, like a mistake," the student said. "It's a good thing because you learn from it."

Dr. Cornell and three student volunteers returned the following Friday, and there was great excitement as students discovered the results of their experiments. As they checked out the carrots, both the control and the one that had been submerged in salt water, students found a marked difference. The one from the salt water was rubbery and bendable while the one in the plain water was relatively unchanged.

There was much exclamation over the two egg samples. The sugar water egg had completely shriveled into a small blob, while the control egg, in the water, was more or less the same. Dr. Cornell invited students to reinsert the shriveled egg into tap water to see if it would return to its original size. In fairly short order, it did.

Comparing eggs.

The final reveal featured the students’ bacteria samplings. As students received their incubated petri dishes, there was a lot of excitement to see who had the largest crop of bacterial colonies. In the end, the largest colony was a swab taken from the floor in a corner of the room.

Checking out her bacteria colony.

Dr. Cornell then invited students to check out some of their bacteria samples in the microscope she had brought with her. Students were fascinated as they saw millions of individual cells from just one bacterial colony projected on a white board. Country School students and BP students talked about the different kinds of bacteria on our planet, and how not all bacteria are bad for us. 

At the end of the session, Dr. Cornell and Country School students passed out paper and pencils, inviting students to design their own stuffed bacterial cell. When the drawing was done, she handed out felt pouches she had sewn together. Students were then given materials to create their own bacteria friends, to which they were able to add features, each with a function that allowed them to thrive in their environments. After they were stuffed and sewn up, students were excited to take them home.

A Country School volunteer helps a BP student with her bacteria creation.


A few of the bacteria creations.


Dr. Cornell with B.P. students, Country School volunteers, and creations.

As for Country School students, what did they think of the biotech sessions with their new young friends? “They were really cute and really enthusiastic,” one Middle Schooler said. We all look forward to the next visit. For more about the Avantor Sciences Foundation grant, click here

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