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Fourteen-year-old Lauren Culos plans to be a forensic anthropologist—just like Temperance Brennan, the scientific sleuth on her favorite TV show Bones. Unlike most teens who dream of a crime-stopping career, Culos already has hands-on experience in the analysis of DNA and other pathological procedures.
Culos, a tenth-grader at Pine Richland High School, was thrilled to wake up early for a week this past June to get a head start on making her dream career a reality. DNA Detective, a science camp offered by Carnegie Science Center in its new PPG SCIENCE PAVILION™, taught Culos and other area middle- and high-schoolers how to use forensic techniques to crack a fictional kidnapping case.
On this particular day, the students are learning how to use a micropipette—a lab tool used to transfer very small amounts of liquid—to put drops of synthetic DNA into a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine, which educator Katie Mercadante explains can duplicate tiny strands of DNA millions of times to create a sample large enough to test. Having learned about the equipment from TV crime labs and forensics books, Culos already understands how
scientists use the machine to solve crimes. Now she’s excited for the chance to try the high-tech tool herself. “It was so cool!” declares Culos.
The DNA Detective camp offered crime-busting science in the Science Center’s new Colcom Foundation Wet Lab—think a ramped-up high school chemistry lab. The Pavilon’s nine FedEx STEM Learning Labs are designed to bolster both the number and sophistication of camps and expand other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programming, reaching everyone from preschoolers to teachers and other adults who may be first-time visitors to the Science Center.
Adult classes—and perhaps even adult camps—will also be held in the new learning labs. Staff members are busy dreaming up all kinds of new possibilities. “It could be the science of beer making. Or maybe adults could go back to high school and do a lab with no pressure and no tests,” says Jessica Lausch, senior director of visitor engagement. Not to mention the full slate of professional development programs now being offered for the region’s teachers.
For years, the Science Center’s popular summer camps have filled to capacity and were held in makeshift classrooms throughout the original building. Sometimes, students even traveled to off-site labs. With the opening of the PPG Science Pavilion this past June, the Science Center was able to offer a record 165 camps—boasting 26 new themes, from Storytime Science for early learners to Digital Storytelling and Game Design for kids ages 12–14.
“This is the first time we’ve had classrooms that were designed specifically for STEM learning,” Lausch says.
The $33 million, four-floor, 48,000-square-foot expansion, which is built to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Gold certification standards, strengthens the Science Center’s ability to deliver its trademark informal STEM learning proven to inspire the next generation of big thinkers. One floor above the learning labs is the 14,000-square-foot Scaife Exhibit Gallery, a fitting space to host major international touring exhibitions like the current The Art of the Brick—blockbuster shows that, until now, would bypass Pittsburgh.
The Science Center already welcomes more than 4,700 kids to its on-site classes and camps each year, and the new classrooms increase the capacity for these programs by 40 percent.
Katie Brunecz, senior manager of out-of-school learning, says the Science Center’s new wet lab makes it possible for both educators and students to conduct more sophisticated experiments involving, for example, the PCR machine, which most students don’t get the opportunity to use until college and only if they choose a
“This is the first time we’ve had classrooms that were designed specifically for STEM learning.”
– Jessica Lausch, Carnegie Science Center’s senior director of visitor engagement
In another new camp dubbed Investigating Our Environment, campers learn how to analyze local river water. With the Ohio River on its back doorstep, now the Science Center has the lab space and equipment to give students a hands-on environmental science experience.
Thirteen-year-old Donovan Lovejoy, who attends Manchester Middle School, is a science camp veteran, having attended 23 offerings over the years. He says it’s even better than hanging out at the pool. “The pool gets old,” says Lovejoy. “Science is fun.”
During a break in the DNA Detective camp, he adds, “I like to learn what is inside of people and inside of animals and how it works and all comes together.”
His favorite camp this summer is another new offering: Art + Tech. “It was cool to see how digital art works,” he says. “I do traditional art at home.”
Other camps, such as Science Escape, are repeated throughout the summer because they’re so popular. The 75 campers who attended the sold-out offering learned about problem solving, Morse code, ultraviolet light, and other scientific principles before the big finale—a trip to a professional escape room, where two teams used their skills to compete.
The day before the final event, Alex Lesh, 13, an eighth-grader from Upper St. Clair, says he was excited to work with his teammates, and confident they would be successful thanks to their newfound skills. “We are a very innovative group,” says Lesh, who plans to become an engineer. “I like to be around people and learn how to solve things.”
Back in DNA Detective camp, Mercadante, who is a science teacher at Montour High School, shows how chemistry applies to police work by laying out a scenario: A woman is kidnapped, and hairs are found in two cars belonging to different suspects. Provided with hypothetical samples from both, campers learn to analyze the DNA and identify the kidnapper. But first, they have to handle a research setback: The first time the students look at the samples in their PCR machines, they discover there isn’t enough DNA to complete the analysis. Mercadante tells the group they’ll have to try it again the next morning.
And this time, it works.
It’s important that kids learn to see this kind of failure as a temporary setback, says Lausch. “We give them opportunities to succeed and opportunities to fail and try again. That’s very much a part of the
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