Science brought to life

The patient came in complaining of stomach pains. She was clearly in distress, and nervous, but alert. The team of doctors around her bed calmly and quickly got to work. One took her hand and assured her they would get to the bottom of her pain. Another began a physical examination. Another asked about her family history, her lifestyle, and what she’d recently eaten. It was chaotic, as all emergency rooms are, but the chaos was controlled, and had the feel of a well-oiled machine.

Just six weeks earlier, the same group stood uneasily around a different patient — this one complaining of difficulty breathing. The only sounds were the beeping of a heart monitor, the patient’s labored breathing, and awkward, confused, and nervous laughter from her attendants.

The thing is, these “doctors” weren’t actual doctors, but students from the Urban Science Academy, an open and inclusive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) high school that is part of Boston Public Schools. The students were visiting Harvard Medical School to take part in the HMS MEDscience program, a STEM initiative aimed at inspiring students and engaging them in science through hands-on experiences.

The program, which launched in 2005 and is currently in 11 Boston schools, is a semester-long high school biology curriculum focused on the anatomy and physiology of seven human organ systems. Each school’s science teacher integrates a MEDscience-designed curriculum into his or her classroom instruction. Once a week, the class travels to the MEDscience Simulation Lab at HMS to apply classroom learning to patient care.

“You can learn on a chalkboard how blood flows through the heart, but when you do, half of the kids will probably be asleep,” said Julie Joyal, executive director of MEDscience. “But if you come to the simulation lab and the patient is now complaining of chest pains, and suddenly we have to debrief on the science around a heart attack — they’re alert and engaged and want to know more.”

The chance at hands-on learning is what draws many students to the class, and what keeps them coming back for more. Educators often find that students who learn through simulation are able to deepen their understanding of an issue by connecting it to real-life experience. Many of the students agree.

“I really enjoyed the hands-on work,” said Urban Science senior Marylynne Kane. “You don’t get that experience in school. It was great to learn something in class, and then get the chance to directly apply it to a real-life situation … I was leaning toward going into journalism before all of this, and then after the first week of MEDscience, that changed. I realized that I like the fast pace of learning in class, and the adrenaline kick of a real-life situation.”

Joyal says the program is also committed to trying to close gaps in opportunity, achievement, and inspiration by driving home the message that STEM-based careers are open to all. It seems to be resonating. A recent study found that 63 percent of students who participated in the program took additional science or health courses, and 97 percent went on to college.

“We hear time and time again that participating in the MEDscience program really helps shape students’ choices about what they want to do in college,” said Joyal. “Whether they had a pre-existing interest in science, or whether this was this first foray — at the end of the day, many of them say that MEDscience is what helped seal the deal. That is our goal, to inspire students and give them opportunities, which in turn gives them confidence. If we can do that, then to us, that’s a success.”

While opening the door to STEM fields is a large component of the program, it’s far from the only MEDscience takeaway. The program also stresses the importance of critical thinking, leadership, problem solving, and teamwork — “all 21st-century skills that employers want, and skills that make kids successful in their careers,” said Joyal.

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