Biology Professor’s Educational Outreach Program to Middle and High School Students Continues to Grow

A student from Hoboken Catholic Academy examines yeast under a microscope in the lab of Professor James Arnone

Professor Sonya Bierbower and her student-researchers welcome a class from Hoboken Catholic Academy

When students first join professor Sonya Bierbower’s neurobiology research team, they don’t expect to have to stand before a crowded middle school gymnasium, microphone in hand, discussing the importance of science, laboratory research, and hard work. But that’s exactly the type of assignment Bierbower has been requiring of her student-researchers.

An assistant professor of biology, Bierbower has been teaming up with the University’s College of Education to bring more science to local schoolchildren for the past three years. Through its professional development network of more than 50 area schools, College of Education staff identify local science teachers in need of a guest-presenter, and Bierbower assigns her students to the task. Bierbower and the College of Education have also been welcoming middle school and high school class trips to campus. Bierbower’s students provide tours of her lab, and teach the young visitors about the work done there through various age-specific activities.

“It’s important to be able to communicate science,” Bierbower says, of the learning outcomes for her students. “And I don’t think science is ‘out there’ enough. Actually seeing how the stuff you’re learning about in a textbook has an everyday purpose is important,” she adds, of the learning outcomes for the middle and high school students.

Bierbower uses mice in her studies of the brain, and the connection with animals, she says, is particularly powerful for young visitors. Among other topics, she and her student-researchers talk about genetics and why some mice subsequently look different from other mice; they explain how mice are predictive of human emotions, and how they exhibit fear, anxiety, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; they show film clips of human brainwave activity during a seizure and mouse brainwave activity during a seizure, and note for young visitors that the brainwave activity is the same; and above all, they explain how their research on the brains of mice has real-world consequences in the field of human medicine.

“It’s about promoting science, getting others to understand the importance of research, and showcasing the type of research we do at William Paterson,” Bierbower explains.

Maria Zamora ‘18, who is currently pursuing her master’s in biology at WP and continues to work in Bierbower’s lab, has made several presentations both in schools and at WP through the outreach program. She went from being scared and unsure in front of a group of pre-teens, to being able to effectively explain her work to students of various ages and academic experiences on the fly. It’s a skill that will serve her well as she prepares for a career in research.

The goal is to inspire students, Zamora says, but they’ve inspired her, too. “They’ve told me, ‘Keep on going; we believe in you; you’ve done such great work’ … I didn’t expect to get that support.”

Excitement about Bierbower’s school outreach project has been growing in Science Hall East, and recent class trips to her lab have also included visits to the labs of biology professor and geneticist James Arnone; biology professor and fungal mycologist Kelley Healey; and psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist David Freestone.

That excitement is also growing in the community, with requests for the science-schools partnership to expand. Therefore, this month, WP students will serve as the judges for Paterson Public Schools’ STEM Expo competition, which will be hosted on the University campus. Thereafter, WP students will visit science fairs hosted at local schools to serve as their judges.

The top prize for children awarded first place in the science fairs? They would get to shadow a WP student-researcher for the day.