A biology lab on wheels brings the excitement of science to Colorado 9th and 10th graders.

Lupe Quinones looks more than a little skeptical as she gingerly pokes at the owl pellet in front of her.

Lupe's reluctance to touch the regurgitated lump of undigestable food doesn't bother Mobile Investigations teacher-in-residence Terry O'Donnell a bit. O'Donnell and his team of undergraduate and graduate student assistants know that the Greeley, Colorado, high school student will feel differently before her day in the mobile lab is done.

To Lupe's left, four boys are performing mock bypass surgery on sheep hearts; to her right, two girls are attempting to "solve" a murder by matching the blood types of suspects to "blood" found at the crime scene. Some of her Trademark High School classmates are extracting DNA from an onion, while others are using a classifying tool known as a dichotomous key to compare and identify skulls of many shapes and sizes, from moles to brown bears.

Mobile Investigations is a hands-on, inquiry-based biology lab on wheels. Supported by an HHMI undergraduate biological sciences education grant to Colorado State University, the program is bringing the excitement of do-it-yourself science to more than 3,500 high school students in 60 schools across Colorado.

The lab is free—a significant factor at rural and alternative schools such as Trademark High—and it comes right to the classroom. "The goal is to engage junior high and high school students in the life sciences, with the hope of interesting some of them in careers such as biomedical research," says Tom Gorell, director of the university's Center for the Life Sciences.

At Trademark, 13 students are working on five investigations simultaneously. In larger classes, O'Donnell typically keeps as many as 11 activities going at the same time. The resulting cacophony is music to the biologist's ears.

"Wowww, I stuck my finger right through the heart!" cries Vero Garcia. Her face, dwarfed by an enormous pink Cat in the Hat cap, wavers between disgust and fascination as she dissects a sheep's heart.

At the DNA extraction table, the students become each other's teachers. Raul Gallegos describes to a classmate what he's seeing through his microscope: "The straight line with bubbles, that's the DNA." Irene Alvarado even offers to help teacher Erika Osborn with the DNA on a microscope slide. "Want me to find it for you?" she asks eagerly. "Want me to show you?"

Before O'Donnell came to Trademark, small teams of students chose one of the activities to research. After he moves on to the next school, each team will share their findings with classmates.

O'Donnell identifies three keys to the success of Mobile Investigations.

  • The activities were written and tested by classroom science teachers to complement, not add to, their curriculum.
  • Students must do both preparation and follow-up.
  • Each exercise is hands-on, engaging students in solving problems themselves.

Says Trademark teacher Osborn: "They really did learn a lot, not just facts about a heart or what an owl pellet is, but what it feels like to be inquisitive, to probe and to concentrate more on the learning process than on its product."

As O'Donnell predicted, Lupe's enthusiasm grows as the class progresses. Osborn and O'Donnell are asking everyone to pack up, but Lupe is still digging around in her owl pellets. "Oh, dude, check it out! I found a whole mouse (skull)," she exclaims.

Mobile Investigations has spawned another potential biologist.

For More Information

Jim Keeley 301.215.8858