Kids engrossed when science includes rat hearts

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Stephen Jones cuts straight to the heart of it.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/05/2018 (1655 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Stephen Jones cuts straight to the heart of it.

“How many of us will likely die from heart disease?” He asks a table of about 20 Grade 8 students from Stonybrook Middle School in Steinbach. “I know,” Jones acknowledges with a grin, “a nice happy thought to start your day.”

The kids take their guesses: three? Six? A little higher, Jones urges them. Eight? Probably.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Youth BIOlab teacher Stephen Jones received the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence STEM earlier this month for his unique science program run from the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre.

One in three deaths in Canada is a result of heart disease. He lightens the mood: “But are you going to die from heart disease in Grade 8? No.”

Jones does that well, toggling between levity and seriousness, making the eighth graders’ eyes go big with new information and then making them giggle a moment later.

On this weekday morning, Jones is their teacher. In the basement of the St. Boniface Hospital Albrechtsen Research Centre, where his Youth BIOlab program is housed, he’ll explain the difference between sick and healthy cells using a clear bag filled with colourful strings and decorated with a smiley face. Then, he’ll take them into his lab and guide them as they clean cell cultures with a saline solution. He’ll show them little slices of healthy and sick rat hearts and later take them up the stairs to where hundreds of scientists are working above them in 25 different labs.

“I want you to imagine heart disease like a huge puzzle,” Jones says. “Each lab has their own little piece of that puzzle and no one’s going to solve the whole puzzle by themselves.”

At this point, Jones has the kids’ full attention. It’s no small feat considering science is not a subject that Manitoba students excel at. In fact, the province’s Grade 8 students are dead last among Canadian children in science, according to the most recent release of testing results from the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada.

But in his lab, Jones sparks genuine curiosity. His is the only teaching facility within an operational lab in North America. More than 20,000 students have come through his doors, while his outreach has connected with 50,000 in total — his colleague is currently in Cross Lake First Nation, bringing this unique program to more Manitobans. For his efforts, Jones was awarded the Prime Minister’s Teaching Excellence in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Award earlier this month.

“It’s a big honour. I’m outside the traditional teaching system and I think that’s the really incredible part of it: we’ve recognized this is a big part of learning and education in Manitoba,” he says.

Jones has been with the research facility for two decades. He worked first as a medical researcher before going back to get an education degree in 2005.

“(I was) looking at how do we take the big ideas and get them out in the public,” Jones says.

At first, it was a touring partnership with Louis Riel School Division. Jones would rotate through high school classes. Five years ago, he opened the doors to his very own lab: a gleaming, bright space often filled the sound of young people joking amongst themselves as they put on safety goggles and size their hands for gloves.

“They all come here ready to learn. It’s that curiosity that just drives everything,” he says.

It’s one of the things he likes about working with younger students like the Stonybrook Grade 8 class.

“That’s really where they’re still curious. They’re asking questions and that’s really what we want to nurture in kids, get them interested and keep that curiosity going because somewhere around that age is where kids start losing interest in science,” Jones says.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Stephen Jones points out structures in a heart while teaching a class as part of his youth BIOlab program.

Jones moves through his curriculum with surprising speed, telling the Grade 8s about the types of cells in their heart, what job each cell does, how they divide and multiply. He pinches his arms, clenches his fists and gesticulates as he speaks for effect.

When he deems them ready, Jones sets them to the task of cleaning a cell culture. In groups, they use droppers to carefully suck out liquid cell food and discard it in a waste container. Be careful or you’ll damage the cells, he advises.

The room gets quiet with concentration, broken only by giggles and a stray remark that, “this is stressful.”

Jones puts the first group’s efforts under a microscope and broadcasts the image onto a screen. He traces a visible line so the students can follow.

“These guys were a little aggressive,” he tells the room, to protests of “no, we weren’t.”

“You can actually see here where they murdered a bunch of cells,” Jones explains, speaking more dramatically for humorous effect.

“That’s the dropper where they scraped it around,” he says, “You can follow the path: death and destruction, more murdering.”

There’s more laughter, loud chuckles, and then the students are back to concentrating. They need to use the droppers to suck out liquid cell food and discard it in a waste container. Once they’re done, Jones promises they can see slices of rat heart.

jane.gerster@freepress.mb.ca

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