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Molecular Biology on Wheels

Summary

Driving a bus outfitted as a laboratory has changed one Boston man's mind about science teachers and students.

Like many Americans, 39-year-old Bill Welch used to think that schools are not doing their job. Teachers complain too much, he said, and they're always asking for more money, even though the school day ends by 3 p.m. and they have the whole summer off. Students don't care if they learn anything either, he believed.

Then Welch started driving the Boston University MobileLab bus, supported in part by a grant from HHMI's precollege science education program. He pilots the bus, a 40-foot long molecular biology laboratory on wheels, to 30 schools a year throughout Massachusetts. Logging close to 8,000 miles during the past school year, he's seen hundreds of middle school and high school students turned on to 21st century biology.

"I had all these preconceptions about education, about lazy teachers and bored kids, about schools that weren't doing their job," he says now. "Was I ever wrong!"

As MobileLab tools about Massachusetts, Welch watches the scenes that changed his mind. "I've met so many teachers who don't hesitate to spend their own time and their own money to make sure they're getting through to kids," he says. "I've seen so many kids getting excited, not just about science, but about learning. And one of the side benefits has been learning a little science myself."

Welch used to drive a school bus. He loved working with children but found that he couldn't live on the pay. So he traded his bus driver's seat for the cab of a concrete mixer, hauling 39 tons of concrete through the streets of Boston. When his mother and sister, who both work at Boston University, told him about a part-time job driving MobileLab, he jumped at the chance to get back to the schools.

Outfitted at a cost of approximately $220,000, MobileLab is equipped to conduct the latest in biotechnology experiments, such as DNA fingerprinting. Under the carefully goggled eyes and gloved hands of instructor Don DeRosa, a science teacher who is studying for his doctorate in science education from Boston University, students learn lab safety as well as hands-on, inquiry-based biology. DeRosa wrote the MobileLab curriculum that he teaches.

Sometimes Welch takes MobileLab across state lines. He will never forget the time he took the bus to a science teachers' convention in North Carolina. He found himself on a hotel elevator filled with science teachers, and he couldn't resist telling them about his worst nightmare: being trapped on an elevator packed with science teachers. "Science wasn't exactly my best subject when I was in school," he explained with a wry smile.

In June, the bus spent two days in the Washington, D.C., area, hosted by the Montgomery County Public Schools. One day Welch parked the bus on Capitol Hill and opened its doors to U.S Senators, Representatives and the public. Students who had participated in HHMI-supported research internships at the National Institutes of Health during the school year demonstrated molecular biology experiments. The next day the bus headed for Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., where students and teachers training for this year's internships learned lab techniques.

Using MobileLab as a model, institutions in several other states are designing similar traveling laboratories. The first MobileLab clone was Destiny, run by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Connecticut's BioBus is being built, and a similar mobile lab is planned for Maryland.

Welch bristles a bit when people call MobileLab a bus. "A bus transports people," he explains. "We transport science."

As inspired as MobileLab's driver has become about the excitement generated by the traveling laboratory, he is discouraged by what he calls the financial facts of life. When he isn't driving MobileLab, Welch drives a concrete mixer in Boston. "I get paid more for hauling concrete than most teachers earn," he says.

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Jim Keeley
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