BioReach

Planting Seeds in Young Minds

By Alan Gomez

Planting Seeds in Young Minds

By Alan Gomez
Science program introduces local students to hands-on learning and exploration

On a recent day at Ponce De Leon Middle School in Coral Gables, a young student was learning how to extract DNA from a strawberry. She followed the directions carefully, mashing up the strawberries and using simple tools to hook the DNA on the end of a stick.

Then, for the first time, she saw it.

“The look of wonder on her face,” says Alex Wilson, a professor in the Department of Biology, “was one of those moments where I had this sense of, ‘I might have just changed this kid’s life today.’”

That interaction was part of BioReach, an initiative Wilson created with colleagues Michelle Afkhami and Christopher Searcy, both assistant professors in the department, to give Miami elementary and middle school students hands-on experiences in the field. Students are shown around campus, get to use high-powered lab equipment, and learn about plants, reptiles, and other organisms.

During one exercise, the students use microscopes to zoom in on the lines that fan out across a flower petal, learning about their purpose and evolution along the way. Another experience sends them to the John C. Gifford Arboretum to discover how trees and plants are not simply colorful landscaping, but living, breathing organisms that interact with each other and their environment.

Sometimes the kids do the strawberry DNA extraction exercise. In other classes, they are introduced to South Florida’s wide range of invasive reptiles – and even get to handle a few of them.

“Their favorite day is always when I bring in the live animals,” says Searcy. “These are things that you can really hold, and you can understand their biology. You can feel the gecko’s toe pads adhering to your finger.”

Afkhami says those exercises open the children’s eyes to the possibility of a career in science.

Opening the Door to New Possibilities
“Eighth-graders still have a while before they’re going to choose a career,” Afkhami says. But after going through the BioReach Program, “They’re starting to think, ‘This is something that is possible for me to consider.’”

Since 2017, the team of biology professors have hosted more than 500 children at their Coral Gables campus. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the program changed course, sending professors directly into schools, where they’ve given lessons to more than 350 students.

The eventual goal is to return to the original model of bringing public school students who rarely have access to high-priced lab equipment to the Coral Gables campus.

“It’s a great way to expose kids in local schools to equipment and facilities that may not be available at their schools and show them the diversity of research that we have going on,” says Athula Wikramanayake, a professor and chair of the Department of Biology.

So far, BioReach has been operating on a budget made possible through their National Science Foundation grants, which include a section of money to be used for community outreach.

The BioReach team hopes to generate additional funds from various sources to establish an endowment that will sustain the program and fund a graduate student to oversee the complicated logistics of bringing hundreds of children on campus on a regular basis. 

“Having some philanthropy infused into this program can help us make it a really great program that could impact a lot more kids,” Wikramanayake says.

To learn more about BioReach, request a session for your students, or donate to the program, email bioreach@miami.edu.