As our UT Health San Antonio volunteer group filed into one of the many Haven for Hope learning center classrooms, we were greeted by a rambling group of adolescents ranging in age from eight to fifteen. By 4:30 in the afternoon, the children were already blowing off steam from the day at one of the many learning computers, reading, or playing the role of a superhero through a shared xbox at the back of the room. Mr. Bill, the chief learning center staff, captured the attention of our students-to-be and invited them to participate in our science demonstration that we were had prepared to present. Reluctant but curious, the youngsters powered off their electronics and gathered around a set of tables fitted end-to-end.
The demonstration kicked off with a conversation about DNA and its pivotal role in all living things! Everything from history, to molecular structure to scientific application was divulged during the one-hour presentation. Truthfully, the children’s never-ending questions and brilliant answers made me realize that we may have been preaching to the choir, only this choir knew that genetic information was encoded within a molecule. When it was time to begin the experiment, the students argued over who was doing a better job at cracking open their strawberry cells, and who would get the most DNA. After straining the batch of eviscerated strawberry pulp into a giant glass beaker, one young boy couldn’t help but put his whole hand into the strawberry mixture to see what it felt like.
In that moment, I found myself reflecting on the outlandish, but thought-provoking nature of childhood curiosities. After the strawberry DNA was extracted and each child sufficiently grossed out that DNA takes the macroscopic resemblance of “snot,” the lesson went microscopic by building a 3D model of molecular DNA using twizzlers, gummy bears and toothpicks. This is where the group truly melded in a shared appreciation for sweets. As much as I don’t like to admit it, I believe candy helped bring the whole concept home as each child became the architect of their own molecule, some of them taking it home, others devouring their creation on site.
Our goal that day was to provide a special opportunity to some of the youngest members of our community facing one of the greatest challenges to society—homelessness. I thought this would be a great event in a multitude of ways, however, there were two overwhelming pieces of evidence that lead me to Haven for Hope. First, UT Health San Antonio is an academic institution whose goal is to serve the community by improving healthcare within Texas. However, service to others is not an objective reserved solely for medical personnel but is systemic throughout our culture.
Whether medical staff, students or faculty, we are all dedicated to a life of service in one way or another, even if it is simply passing on the knowledge of our education. And what better way to share this knowledge than with those in need? Secondly, these events give young children a narrative to tell themselves as they get older. I believe the stories we tell ourselves about who we are have a powerful impact in determining who we will become in the future. By spreading the wealth of storytelling to underserved groups, they can remind themselves that their lives were also impacted by academics at a young age and deserve a place in a STEM field just like anyone else.
Moving forward, our group would like to continue performing science outreach at the Haven for Hope on a monthly basis and are considering demonstrating “elephant toothpaste,” per multiple requests by the young students at the Haven. We would like to meet this monthly goal because homelessness is a multi-faceted problem that has no one solution. However, we can address certain issues by impacting the lives of the city’s youth in constructive ways. This event seems to also have had an impact on us as educators as well.
Allison Hester, a doctoral candidate in Molecular Immunology & Microbiology discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program, said, “this one event has been more fun than any other volunteer activity I have attended!”
A second-year master’s student in the Cell Systems and Anatomy program, Ronald Cutler, summed up the experience in the clearest of ways, “kids love to learn when there are sugary rewards involved.”
This article was written by Ivan Rubalcava, a second year student in the M.S. in Cell Systems and Anatomy program.