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Research in the Classroom: Wistar and Collaborators Enhance Experiential Learning in The Life Science Classrooms of G.W. Carver High School

June 10, 2024

Philadelphia’s George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science is a criteria-based admission school that enrolls students with demonstrated excellence and ambition, many of whom have a strong interest in various STEM fields. Thanks to a collaboration between Heights Philadelphia and The Wistar Institute, with vital support from Philadelphia-based gene therapy company Spark® Therapeutics, the students in Mr. Latchford’s 9th grade Science Research classroom participated in hands-on lab activities that complement the current curriculum focusing on the scientific method.

To support this program, Wistar’s Jason Diaz, Ph.D. — director of education & inclusive excellence and assistant professor in the Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center — loads up his car with Wistar equipment and heads to Carver, where he becomes “Dr. D.” to the room full of eager science champions. At Carver, Dr. Diaz brings the authentic research of The Wistar Institute straight into the classroom, where, as the educational research shows, students can develop identities as scientists and become not only comfortable with but enthusiastic about pursuing careers in science. By reaching out to more students at earlier stages in their high school careers, Wistar’s Hubert J.P. Schoemaker Education and Training Center aims to share the opportunities of science with Philadelphia communities.

Carver is an ideal high school to implement this program, according to Dr. Diaz and his counterparts at Heights; as both a criteria-based admission school as well as a school comprised mostly of students from populations underrepresented in the life sciences, the program engages and challenges students who might not have otherwise thought of careers in science as “for them.” Building on the successes of a similar pilot program last year, this year’s collaboration between Heights and Wistar received additional support from Spark Therapeutics, who aim to foster robust opportunities for Philadelphians to find meaningful careers in the life science sector. To further encourage Philadelphia’s future scientists, the program has also brought Carver students to tour The Wistar Institute’s laboratories, where they saw a professional research environment first-hand — and perhaps were inspired to apply to Wistar’s Summer High School Program in Biomedical Research.

“At Carver, we have some of the smartest students in the city,” said assistant principal Ms. Elizabeth Curry, “But to get them thinking about applying their talents — in their studies, in their future plans, and, eventually, in their career paths — we need to engage their interest level where they are. That’s why giving ninth graders hands-on education with real research equipment is so important.”

Dr. D.’s students agree. “I think of myself as a science enthusiast,” said one student, reflecting on his experience using the gel electrophoresis device that had been brought into the classroom for that day’s instruction. “I’m able to work with real scientific equipment and conduct an experiment — I get to say that I used these tools just like a real scientist.”

One of the students showed a strong interest in how this Wistar programming aligns with her ambitions: “My goal is to become an anesthesiologist, and hands-on research lessons like this get me thinking and actually doing the science — lessons are fine, but I enjoy the activities,” she said. “I feel like it really opens the door for what I want to do.”

Many students were captivated by the practical approach. “It’s not every day that you get to see or use this equipment, and I enjoyed learning how specific and precise you need to be when you do use it. I appreciate the opportunity, because I know it’s a cool experience not a lot of students get to have.”

The classes ended with words of encouragement and gratitude from Spark’s representatives, who spoke to the legacy scientific advances that are an integral part of Philadelphia’s history and its economy.

“At Spark, we work with exciting and inspirational technologies every day, but we’re here at Carver because it’s just as inspiring to see students like you engage with research in that same spirit of curiosity that drives our work,” said Candace Edwards, Spark’s Associate Director of Communications.

As the final bell of the afternoon rang and the students filed out into the sunny April day, Dr. Diaz regrouped with Mr. Latchford to review the day’s success and review plans for future lessons powered by the investments made by all three organizations. In the words of Carver’s principal, Dr. Darryl Johnson, the key to the success of Carver’s student body is collaborations like those with Wistar: “Relationships are the new currency. If you want to be a successful school, then you need to cultivate intentional relationships.” With the support of Heights and Spark Therapeutics, The Wistar Institute will continue to do just that by working toward a Philadelphia where high school students feel empowered and confident to pursue scientific opportunities that lead them through the rest of their schooling and into scientific careers.