illustration by VSA Partners

Mapping Out a Future in Science

The weeklong MAPS in Medicine program aims to spark an interest in science among high school students.

A 28-year-old woman with night sweats and weight loss has a fist-sized mass in her chest and an elevated white blood count. “Tell me why lymphoma is your diagnosis,” says the instructor.

Students sift through their papers to find the patient’s medical history. Finally locating the laboratory results, Becky Maier reads aloud, comparing the patient’s results with normal values.

Maier and the others are not in medical school or even college. They’re high school students participating in the weeklong Maps in Medicine Program (MiM) at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Over the next few days they will use the Internet, pore over x-rays and CT scans, and learn how doctors diagnose illnesses by facing a problem one well-researched step at a time. They’ll learn to map the path a cell takes, from stem cell to fully developed cell, and then switch gears and chart the spread of an infectious disease.

During an afternoon visit to the University of Missouri medical simulation lab, students began to experience being a doctor. They donned stethoscopes, secured airways, and started intravenous lines on lifelike mannequins. When long needles were first pulled from protective sheaths, more than one student looked woozy. Before long, all were jostling for their turn, pulling out cameras and cell phones, shouting, “Take a picture of me doing this!”

In MiM’s first two years, only teachers attended the Summer Institute, a program to provide them with the tools and support to make science education exciting (see sidebar, “Zebrafish to Go”). In 2010, 23 students were invited to attend a parallel program, called the Student Summer Academy.

Plotting a Course for High School Students

Follow high school students through the Maps in Medicine program.
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MiM organizers—a network of University of Missouri faculty, staff, and students, plus high school teachers and students from St. Louis, Kansas City, and rural Missouri—aim to spark an interest in science among high school students who have taken few or no introductory science classes. Some may be part of the first generation in their families considering college, while others view higher education as an impossible goal. The program staff deliberately recruited such students. “If they were already committed to science, then they wouldn’t need us,” says program director William R. Folk.

The teens will be followed through high school to monitor their college choices. Their mentors will also assess their interest in science classes and membership in science clubs.

To make that lymphoma diagnosis, students went through a problem-based learning exercise, similar to the type of puzzle medical students solve each week. “The experience made them realize they can learn anything put before them and solve any problem presented to them,” says Susan Ailor, associate professor of dermatology and a leader in the HHMI-supported program. “I had hoped for a really good experience. I think they had a really great experience.”

Jack Short, one of four second-year medical students who served as program counselors, used the same lymphoma scenario to demonstrate the variety of career choices available in medicine. He started with the medical receptionist, who is the first person a patient contacts, and covered everyone from medical technologists to specialized nurses, physicians, and phlebotomists. Students learned about the relationship between years of education and potential salary as well as the importance of every member of the health care team, says Ailor.

Zebrafish to Go

Teachers like learning hands-on science too.

During a session on college preparation, students were asked to close their eyes and make successive folds in a pink piece of paper, following deliberately vague instructions given by the moderator. No questions allowed. The students then snipped off one corner of their folded paper. Giggles bounced around the room as the teens unfolded their handiwork and discovered very different results from paper to paper. The task drove home that working in the dark without proper information is a bad way to prepare for college.

That evening, students attended a college fair where they met college advisors from institutions ranging from small private colleges to large public universities. “We wanted them to feel recruited,” says Ailor.

On the last day of camp, Ailor reflected on the students’ experiences. “It was amazing to me that they found their strengths and used them in different ways during the week. We’d love to turn them all on to science,” she says. “If we can get them thinking about science, it’s huge.”