In early August, more than 40 faculty, staff scientists, postdocs, graduate students, and undergrads representing the UW Medicine Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine (ISCRM) stepped out of the lab to share their love of science and medicine with high school students from all over Lewis County, Washington.
The high school students were participants in a summer STEM camp that began five years ago as part of a major investment in student achievement across the Chehalis School District. The camp took place in the new Orin Smith STEM wing at W.F. West High School – named for the former UW Regent whose generous gifts have supported the launch of ISCRM and sustained its growth over the last ten years.
Over two high energy days in Chehalis, the UW researchers used interactive stations to introduce rotating groups of high school students to organ systems, biotechnology, and other topics at the heart of regenerative medicine. On the third day of the experience, the students traveled to Seattle for a tour of ISCRM labs and core facilities.
Dr. Charles Murry, the Director of ISCRM, set the tone for the UW Medicine portion of the camp with an overview of regenerative medicine and a call to action for the students to carry the work forward in the future. “We think the creativity in this room is going to take the baton in the next leg of this great relay race,” said Dr. Murry.
The first day of the STEM camp with ISCRM was focused on organ systems. For the researchers, each station was an opportunity to bring anatomy from the textbook to the table, allowing students to see, touch, and even listen to human organs. This hands-on approach to science gave real-world meaning and context to the importance of blood flow, the anatomy of the respiratory system, the role of enzymes, and other aspects of human anatomy.
At the same time, back-and-forth discussions between the researchers and students touched on big questions about anatomy, disease, and lifestyle choices. What are the signs of cardiovascular disease? What are the effects of smoking and alcohol consumption on heart, liver, and kidney health? What does a bronchoscopy reveal? How does the human body absorb different types of medication?
Nisa Penland, a UW PhD student in Bioengineering, was one of the ISCRM researchers taking part in the STEM camp. “It was very rewarding to give back when these students are so primed to become scientists or medical doctors,” said Penland. “I think there were certain light bulbs that went off when they connected ideas with each other that they’ve been reading about in their textbooks. Just teaching them for two days made me learn more about the work I do in my own lab.”
On the second day of the STEM camp, the focus shifted from organ systems to biotechnology, and the possibilities (and limitations) of regenerative medicine. Again, the learning was active and engaging. The STEM camp students competed in a game designed to mimic the process of CRISPR gene editing. They explored the principles of precision medicine, including new strategies for diagnosing (and managing) diseases. And they learned how sending kidney chips into space may lead to more efficient ways to test new drugs.
Through it all, enthusiasm among the students ran high. “The use of medicine we learned about in this program interested me because it’s in my career path,” said Josie, a 10th-grader participating in the STEM camp. “I want to be a pediatric psychiatrist. I love medicine. I want to help people.”
The STEM camp experience concluded with a trip to UW Medicine in South Like Union, where the Lewis County students toured the labs and core facilities of the Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine. In one highlight, a visit to the Aquatics Lab included an opportunity to peer at the beating heart of a Zebrafish through a microscope. Before boarding the bus back to Chehalis, the students learned about different career paths in science and medicine during a panel discussion with UW Medicine researchers.
The focus on the future was a fitting end to the three-day experience. Lynn Panther, a teacher on special assignment with the Chehalis School District spoke about the potential impact of the science program. “This partnership with the University of Washington has been an amazing experience for kids from the whole region. My hope is that learning from UW researchers and scientists will spark an interest in science, open their minds to opportunities they wouldn’t have known about, and show them that they can do these jobs too.”