Aha moments

Apples, liver and chicken feet unleash cub scientists

It is 3:35 on a winter Wednesday afternoon, and 14 children stand in a circle in a school room chapel reciting the Lord’s Prayer. After the “Amens,” the children will spend the next 90 minutes studying diverse subjects at grade levels well beyond their years.

It’s a typical afternoon at South Boston’s Paraclete Center, a charitable Catholic study center run by volunteer teachers. Through a program called Gap Junction, students from Tufts’ Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences donate their time and scientific expertise to bring hands-on science lessons to these urban middle-schoolers.

Kadijah and Kayla, both 10, work on an experiment about enzymes. © Mark Morelli

Jen Jones, a fifth-year M.D./Ph.D. student, dons a lab coat at the front of the biomed room, a classroom equipped with lab benches for eight students, a few second-hand anatomical models and a cardboard American flag taped to the wall. Beneath the flag hang childishly drawn chromosomes from a previous session.

Kapryce, 11, and her sister, Kadijah, 10, arrive for class along with their neighbor, Kayla, also 10. All three live in the same South Boston housing project and attend the Perkins Elementary School during the day. With help from full-time volunteer teacher Brande Flamez, the girls don lab coats, latex gloves and goggles. Kayla, looking no more dignified herself, points at Kadijah and sings out, “You look funny!”

Groceries and metaphor
After emphasizing the importance of lab safety, Jones starts in on today’s lesson: enzymes, the molecules that enable certain chemical reactions to occur. Jones is armed with little more than products from the grocery store and a knack for metaphor to help her get her message—sophisticated science for kids this age—across to her students.

The girls pour hydrogen peroxide into clear plastic cups. Jones hands out apple slices and asks them to place the apple in the solution. Nothing happens, and the girls have just learned about control groups.

The fun begins when Jones has the girls chop up store-bought chicken livers and place the chunks into the hydrogen peroxide. An enzyme in the liver—called catalase—reacts with the hydrogen peroxide, converting it to its component molecules, water and oxygen. The resulting bubbling mess is the stuff young scientists are made of.

Jones also uses milk and lactase, a digestive enzyme, to demonstrate how enzymes work. The girls use sugar testing strips to measure the lactose—the sugar some people can’t tolerate in dairy products—in the regular milk. Then they crush up a tablet of lactase, the enzyme that converts lactose into more digestible sugars, and add it to the milk. When the girls test the concoction for sugar again, the lactase has neutralized the lactose.

Jones’ pupils want to keep mixing things even after a parent arrives to take them home. It’s clear teaching is in her blood. “It is quite a family tradition, actually. My grandmother and grandfather were both teachers. My mother taught music, and now my sister is learning to teach,” says Jones. “So I’m a bit of an anomaly being a scientist, but I have the teaching thing, too.”

These days, Jones expresses her “teaching thing” mostly behind the scenes of Gap Junction. As co-organizer with Lauren Oleson, a Sackler student studying pharmacology, Jones now devotes the bulk of her efforts to recruiting and scheduling Sackler students at the Paraclete Center.

Career prompters
“For me, it’s mostly science outreach. I remember thinking science class was boring,” Jones says. “I hope to provide fun activities for kids and encourage people who wouldn’t otherwise consider a science career to at least think about it.”

Jen Jones, a fifth-year M.D./Ph.D. student, shows her young students how a liver enzyme reacts to hydrogen peroxide. © Mark Morelli

That’s the primary goal of the Gap Junction, which a group of Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine students started in 1996. The program takes its name from a structure that facilitates communication among cells. And those are the program’s other missions: to foster closer ties between Tufts and its surrounding communities while giving graduate students more teaching and communications experience. Jones is working to expand the program to include representatives from all of Sackler’s departments and to recruit students from the School of Medicine and School of Dental Medicine, too.

More than just science classes go on at the Paraclete. For $25—waived in many cases—neighborhood kids attend classes in math and reading as well as lighter subjects such as cartooning, robotics and yoga, between 3:30 and 5 p.m. each school day. Kids can drop by for homework help Monday through Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30. One of the Paraclete Center’s goals is to help disadvantaged youth gain admission to Boston’s prestigious public exam schools.

“A third of the kids we work with come from the housing projects,” says Brande Flamez, one of the four full-time volunteer teachers who reside on the premises. “So it’s really good if we can get them into [Boston’s exam schools] because they are free, and they are also among the top schools in Boston.”

Flamez, a Texas native who has been living and working at the Paraclete since she graduated from Notre Dame in 2003, has witnessed much progress in the children who regularly make use of the center.

“It’s really neat when you look at their stats,” says Flamez. “The kids I was working with last year in math were all testing at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Now, they are up to 11th- and 12th-grade levels, and they are only sixth-graders now.”

On another Wednesday afternoon, Kayla is joined by John, Dylan and Meagan, and Michelle Tangredi, a first-year Sackler neuroscience student, helps the kids unravel the mysteries of the musculoskeletal system. This is the second session Tangredi has taught at the Paraclete.

Bones and bicep curls
“I’ve been looking forward to it,” says Tangredi, who has 10 years of teaching swimming and religious education classes under her belt. “I spent so much time on the PowerPoint. It’s crazy,” she laughs.

With her elaborate slideshow, chicken feet from the Super 88 Asian market and five-pound dumbbells, Tangredi introduces the students to bones, bone marrow, muscles, tendons and ligaments and the kinds of injuries that can befall each tissue.

Sackler student Jen Jones uses plenty of metaphor to help students understand sophisticated science. © Mark Morelli

Tangredi hands a carefully dissected chicken foot to each student and shows them how to identify the tendons and ligaments. Soon, the boys are using the chicken feet as puppets, hissing, “Luke, I am your father!” while wiggling disembodied toes at each other.

Then the students conduct an experiment with their own musculoskeletal systems. To test which muscle is stronger, the kids count how many bicep curls versus how many triceps extensions it takes to tire each muscle out.

It may seem like fun and games, but when Tangredi presents the children with review sheets at the end of her lesson, they fill them out quickly and mostly accurately. “I find teaching at the Paraclete extremely fulfilling,” says Tangredi. “Youth need more exposure to science early on, and this is a terrific outlet in which they can pursue their curiosities and develop analytical skills that will be useful throughout their lives.”

Jacqueline Mitchell is a senior health sciences writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu.