May 8, 2017
By Bette McDevitt

On a recent Friday, high school students came into a science lab here in Pittsburgh, put on white coats, blue plastic gloves, and protective eyewear to prepare for their weekly experiment. On this day, they are learning about various wavelengths of light, in particular ultraviolet light, invisible to the human eye. When their science teacher, Eric Dunkerley, has gone over the information about the topic, the class will plate cells and expose them to ultraviolet light, for various controlled lengths of time. They will record the results, which will no doubt show the destruction of the cells, comparable to what happens to our skin, no matter the color, when exposed to UV rays.

This sounds like an experiment that might take place in any well-funded university lab. What is extraordinary is where it takes place, and who the students are.

The class takes place in The Citizen Science Lab, located in the Energy Innovation Center, formerly the Connelly Trade School. The massive building in the Hill District on Bedford Avenue is under renovation, and as if that were not enough, is aiming for LEED Platinum certification, quite a challenge for an old structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The lab and other rooms in use are on the side of the building shielded with a new glass exterior, which brings light into the rooms.

The lab is affiliated with the national Citizen Science movement, whose goal is to involve the public in scientific research to power citizen science and speed innovation. In line with this goal, the lab is open to citizens who want to carry out their own experiments

The students are from Holy Family Academy, a Catholic high school with students focused on college and career development.

“And this is where the magic happens, “said Andre Samuel, PhD, and director of The Citizens Science Lab. “Students learn to use all the equipment found in any traditional research lab. We cover things from microbiology to genetic manipulation to renewable energy.”

“It’s rather like the Tech Shop located in East Liberty, “said Carrianne Floss, program coordinator of The Citizen Science Lab. “We have expensive equipment here, that schools and ordinary citizens can’t afford to have, and anyone can come here and do experiments.” And it’s portable. “We go out to many schools that can’t afford transportation costs to come here, and do after school workshops.”

Shannon Laffterty, one of several interns from local universities who assist with the programs at the lab, was helping on that day. Her enthusiasm was contagious. She is pursuing a master’s degree at Duquesne University in Education, and the experience in the lab with students has convinced her to pursue a career in science education.

On Wednesdays, programs are offered in the lab for home schooled students, and at other times, for private, parochial, charter and public school students. All programs are free for Hill District residents, and there is an affordable price for others.

When the students have completed their experiments, they like to check in with the creatures who live at the lab, Lucy the Bali Python, Sam, the Greenbottle blue Tarantula, as well as the crickets, beetles, and the Leopard Gecko, Romeo.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, would like this place, considering he said: “The problem is not scientifically illiterate kids; it is scientifically illiterate adults. Kids are born curious about the natural world. They are always turning over rocks, jumping with two feet into mud puddles and playing with the tablecloth and fine china.”

 

Bette McDevitt is a member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective.