Boston Public Schools Benefit from COE2C’s Sustained Science Outreach

This smiling Boston Public School teacher, Ms. Ivyrose Likis from Excel HS, South Boston (left in the photo), was particularly excited on hearing good news!  She was one of the original biology teachers who participated in a four year Boston Public School (BPS) pilot program with MIT’s Community Outreach Education and Engagement Core (COE2C).  COE2C had produced and donated six hands-on DNA and Protein Sets to be shared among the Boston Schools.  Ms. Likis, along with 25 other teachers volunteered to try out the models after receiving a workshop training.

BPS science teachers finish their evaluation papers after the COE2C professional development workshop with the MIT DNA and Protein Sets.

Ms. Likis was fairly new to teaching when the LEGOtm prototype sets were first provided in 2012-13.  However, she quickly discovered their utility, as the models raised her students’ interest in learning about molecular biology, principally because they were learning by doing.  “Learning by doing” is now technically called “experiential learning” in teacher lingo.  It certainly is not new concept, actually a time-honored method.  Historically, apprentices were taught highly complex professions by working alongside a master in the craft with this teaching technique.   It is highly effective at all intellectual levels and ages.  It requires that students to pay attention, use their minds to think and anticipate what should happen next, and it employs their hands in the lesson with meaningful and tactile experiences that will help them to recall many key details later.  Repetition often contributes to effectiveness the process.  Overall, learning and memory are strengthened by a combination of factors such as the context, focus, and tactile experience.  This general knowledge about the efficacy of experiential learning is now well supported by modern neurological research.  (Ref.)  

So back to the story…  as the DNA sets became more popular at BPS, sharing six sets among the 30 Boston high schools became quite difficult, as you can imagine.  So Boston teachers, including Ms. Likis were pleased to hear that all of the 30 high schools in the BPS system will receive their own MIT Classroom Sets of DNA/RNA, Protein, and tRNA --this year.  That’s not the only good news: the MIT sets come with newly patented, injection-molded models (not glued LEGO pieces), as well as additional lessons in the student instructional booklets, and 3 min video clips that provide close-up demonstrations for use in class.  A foundation grant has paid for all the BPS materials, including the expensive metal molds for high speed injection-molded precision parts and also the cost of fabrication of the plastic pieces.  Through a CEHS /MIT Edgerton Center partnership, COE2C is providing BPS with 30 classroom sets (each $ 4,800) from this first manufacturing run of the sets.

However, to manage the task of assembling all the thousands of pieces into classroom-ready kits with their print materials, COE2C Director, Kathleen Vandiver recruited the organizational talents of an MIT alum, Ms. Lori Tsuruda, of People Making a Differencetm .   Ms. Tsuruda’s non-profit has provided the main engine for assembling the sets for the BPS STEM classes, and many MIT student groups contributed their time as well.  Interestingly, large corporations in the Boston area such as Massachusetts Blue Cross/ Blue Shield (Mass BCBS) and Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research (NIBR) have volunteered corporate manpower in service for BPS at events that PMD and COE2C have organized for them. Together these corporate groups have contributing more 400 man hours of high quality labor for multiple years, effectively contributing to this BPS STEM learning project. 

MIT students Feb 10, 2018 at one of the “Protein Builds” for the Boston Public Schools.  The bags contain different colored amino acids; the yellow side chains are hydrophobic; the green are polar.  They vary in size and shape and flexibility as well. 

Dr. Kathleen Vandiver, COE2C director designed these hands-on models. Unlike most biology teaching aids for the classroom, these models are not statuesque. Instead they are designed to demonstrate how the molecules work, not just to show what they may look like.  The subunits in the DNA and Proteins sets can be assembled and disassembled in different ways, according their shape and size. Because a chemical’s charge influences its molecular interaction, this feature is represented in the amino acids by color.  Note the colors of the side chains in the adjacent photograph.  Overall, the models allow students to experience in mechanistic way how the molecules work. Now in many BPS classrooms, a biology student can show what they know!  They can show how a cell can string together a precise three dimensional protein from an instructional DNA strand.  More information about the models can be found at  

We wish to particularly thank both Ms. Pamela Pelletier, and Ms. Suzanne Gill of the Boston Public School’s Science Department both for their vision and hard work---first,  for recognizing the value of these novel teaching tools for the students, and second,  for tireless efforts to bring these materials to the classroom.  Their efforts include professional education workshops for teachers as well as managing the distribution and maintenance of the sets across the whole system, no small feat.  The final distribution of the remaining BPS DNA and Protein sets and the COE2C provided teacher professional workshops will take place over this summer, in July 2018. This sustained community effort has been particularly rewarding for COE2C.  With many of the sets now flying off to distant places around the globe (such as to Brazil, Beijing, Hawaii, Hong Kong, Spain, and Sweden) COE2C is proud to have contributed to the BPS experiential learning opportunities in biology and environmental health found in our own hometown, Boston.