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Mobile lab brings hands-on learning to schools across Md.

In the hopes of encouraging Maryland students to consider a career in the bioscience industry, a mobile science lab is visiting the Baltimore School for the Arts this week, giving students an opportunity to do hands-on experiments with expert instructors.

Zoe Witkowski (left) and Kaylah Smith, 10th graders at Baltimore School for the Arts, work on a science experiment Tuesday in the MdBioLab.

The MdBio Foundation, a division of the Rockville-based Tech Council of Maryland, has brought its MdBioLab to 35 Maryland schools a year since 2003. The $450,000 lab on wheels can accommodate 32 students at a time, and is equipped for 11 different experiments, from comparing DNA samples in a CSI-like activity, to studying the environmental effects of an oil spill and how to clean it up.

Jennifer Colvin, senior director of education and workforce programs for the MdBio Foundation, said that the lab is designed to give students a chance to work with the same equipment they would see in a real bioscience laboratory, and hopefully spur their interest in a career in science here in Maryland.

“It’s a huge industry in our state,” Colvin said. “We have more than 400 companies that are related to bioscience, and so I want these students to know that they can support these companies down the road.

“I grew up in northwest Pennsylvania, and I got a science degree, and I had nowhere to work, so I had to come to Maryland to get a job. I want them to know that they can stay in Maryland, they can go to school in Maryland and they can get their job in Maryland.”

Tim Carter, lead instructor for MdBioLab, said that a large part of what makes the experiments such a valuable teaching tool is that they have an open-ended design, as opposed to cookbook-style experiments where students simply follow rigid instructions.

“We call it inquiry-based teaching, and we want the students to be able to draw their own conclusions based upon their own data,” he said. “That’s what they would have to do in a real world lab, should they end up there, which we’re hoping they do based upon this experience.”

Sophomore Diamond Harrid, 15, said she particularly enjoyed working through an experiment without necessarily knowing how it is supposed to turn out.

“That’s my favorite part, is kind of finding and discovering new things. This is sort of new to me now, but since now we are doing it it’s really exciting, I want to see what happens,” said Harrid, having just tested the pH level of a sample of milk in a test tube as part of an experiment to see how the enzyme lactase breaks down the lactose in milk.

“This is the first time we actually got to do a real experiment like this, which is actually really cool,” said 18-year-old senior Anna Gracie. “It’s a lot more fun and a lot more interesting doing it, like with all the goggles and gloves and all kinds of cool stuff — instead of just sitting in the classroom just taking notes all the time.”

Russell Hill, professor and interim director at the Institute for Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, said that the mobile lab is just the sort of thing that is important to cultivating future scientists.

“That sort of program fulfills a very important role, because it gives young students an opportunity to see what science is all about,” Hill said. “I think that’s really important when you are trying to get people to consider a science career.”

Colvin said that MdBioLab isn’t necessarily only trying to get students interested in hands-on science jobs, but also just science and the industry in general.

“They might say, I understand the science, but I’m really interested in computers or business, but I might get a job at one of those [Maryland bioscience] companies,” Colvin said.

“If they pay attention to an article in the news tonight about a science topic, I feel successful, because they probably wouldn’t have yesterday.”