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Act Like a Kid, Think Like a Scientist: How FirstHand Engages Students in the Lab

Two people are leaning over an electrophoresis machine in a lab: they’re using positive and negative electrodes to sort out DNA based on their molecular size. They move with confidence, adjusting parameters as needed. This isn’t a college course or an up-and-coming biotech company: they’re Philadelphia public school students, and they’re here for a FirstHand™ lab at the Science Center.

Jackie, FirstHand Student

What is FirstHand?

Student involvement in STEM is more critical than ever, but student competency in science remains low – only 22% of high school graduates are proficient in science. The statistics for low-income students of color specifically are even more dire.

The Science Center’s FirstHand program aims to close one of the gaps in Philadelphia’s life science ecosystem. Students who participate in FirstHand work in a real, state-of-the-art scientific laboratory, engaging in hands-on learning alongside STEM professionals who serve as mentors. Beyond the formal curricula, FirstHand often connects interested students with local businesses for potential internships, jobs, and other opportunities.

The curricula are designed to be both informative and engaging – with relevance to students’ everyday lives. Learning how to make e-textiles and wearables, for example, is something students who often rely on devices like Apple watches can relate to. Students often struggle to see how the science they learn in their school classrooms impacts their day-to-day or could be a viable career path for them: the Science Center seeks to change that.

Jackie: Moving out of her comfort zone… and into the lab

Most students aren’t that intrigued by vegetable fats and corn starch. But what if these ingredients could be used to create environmentally friendly plastics? FirstHand’s bioplastic lab is a popular one. Students experience what it’s like to be a materials scientist, allowing them to engage with science in a fun and hands-on way that’s directly connected to a career path.

“I’ve enjoyed learning about bioplastic and how we can use it more. I made a tiny little bear out of bioplastic and learned about the chemical bonds – that’s something that I like, understanding how chemical bonds can transform something into something else,” says Jackie.

Jackie is a FirstHand superstar, having participated in two virtual programs as an 8th grader at Young Scholars Charter School, and in-person during Hi-5 in 2022. Jackie then returned in the summer 2023 as a FirstHand intern, helping to get the next round of students invested in science by supporting both STEM in the Real World and Hi-5. She remains an active FirstHand intern today and is instrumental in supporting our 2023/2024 programs.

“Other students connect easily with Jackie and look up to her as a role model,” explains FirstHand Program Coordinator Tiffany Copeland. “A recent student stated, ‘Can I come back to the program next year to work? I want to do what Jackie does.’ Overall, she has truly lived up to her role as high school intern and is beginning to show signs of true peer mentorship.”

Jackie didn’t start off with an interest in science, though.

  • Jackie, FirstHand student

“When I first joined FirstHand, I was nervous… I never liked science in elementary and middle school,” she explains. “But then I got here, and I started understanding it more, and I went out of my comfort zone – and I feel as though that is what I needed in my life.”

That’s part of the beauty of FirstHand: students’ assumptions about what science looks like are constantly tested. There are no grades or tests: just experimenting and hands-on learning.

What is Jackie up to next? “Going to college – figuring out what I want to do, and finding the right path for me,” she explains. “I want to be a lab technician when I get older… I like testing out things. I want to be a biomedical technician.”

Overall, her experience with FirstHand has been incredibly positive.

“The instructors have always been nice, understanding, and supportive,” she explains. “And I’m getting more skills I can add to my resume and my college application.”

“As a FirstHand alumni she has taken advantage of all that the program has to offer, including continuing opportunities such as the Drexel BIOMED Summer Academy,” adds Tiffany, which was a warm hand-off from FirstHand to Drexel.

Aisha, FirstHand student

Aisha: Uncovering her true passions in STEM

When it comes to her experience with FirstHand, high school student Aisha explains that it taught her to see science in a different light. “It’s not always like ‘Oh, we’re exploding stuff.’ There are other aspects to it that are actually cool and fun,” she explains, adding that her favorite science subject is now biology.

Aisha is another FirstHand enthusiast, having participated in two virtual programs as 7th grader at KIPP West Philadelphia Prep, the same in-person Hi-5 class as Jackie in 2022, and Polymer Play as an 8th grader at KIPP. She’s currently in FirstHand’s NFTE BizCamp Sprint for High School students, which is an entrepreneurial course for students to pursue their business ideas, designed in partnership with Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE).

Among programs like it, FirstHand is unique because students can continue to participate across multiple curricula if they opt to (and they frequently do) – it’s not necessarily a one-and-done engagement.

No one had to tell the enterprising Aisha about NFTE. Thanks to her interest in FirstHand, she saw the posting for NFTE on the Science Center website – and decided to apply, despite no longer being at KIPP - one of FirstHand’s partner schools.

“Because I love FirstHand, I wanted to continue with FirstHand, so I went on the website and saw the posting for BizCamp. I was already thinking about starting a baking business, so I was like, ‘Oh, this is the perfect opportunity,’” she explains.

So: how is her baking business coming along? “We’re getting there,” she says with a smile.

Experimenting with what you’re interested in – and figuring out what you enjoy – is part of the fun of FirstHand. For Aisha’s part, she’s realized that she’s more attuned to the numbers-side of things lately.

“I want to pursue mathematics more, so I’m trying to get into a physics course for the summer,” she says.

Not every student is as eager to jump into science as Aisha was, and that’s understandable. For those on the fence, she has this to say:

“Try programs like this, because they really do give you a better outlook on what science is like. The field of science isn’t as difficult as it seems to be. They might be scared of going to college for science – but I think FirstHand’s a great step to take to see if this is for you,” she explains.