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The Younger Side of Microbiology

USC College professor Steven Finkel makes science fun for children in the community.

By Rebecca Dorman '10
June 10, 2009


The Younger Side of Microbiology
Video by Mira Zimet

According to the National Science Foundation, 80 percent of jobs in the future will require some math and science skills. "Math and science are the new foundational literacy for everyone," said Tom Luce, chief executive officer of the Math and Science Initiative.

To this end, educators such as Katie Safford, who teaches second grade at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Los Angeles, are always searching for creative ways to stimulate student interest and lay the groundwork that will help young minds make their generation's great advances and discoveries.

That’s where Steve Finkel comes in. The associate professor of biological sciences in USC College has two daughters who attend the school where Safford teaches. As both a parent and an educator, he could not pass up an opportunity to share his expertise and motivate young students to think about science. Finkel recently paid second-graders at Ivanhoe a visit to introduce them to microbiology.

Finkel and Safford devised a two-part experiment to give students the opportunity to examine bacterial growth firsthand. Students came straight from recess and rubbed their fingers in Petri dishes; they repeated the experiment in new dishes after washing their hands. Finkel placed the dishes in an incubator back at his USC lab, and returned to Ivanhoe the following week to demonstrate the amount of bacteria that lived on their hands before and after washing.

The second-graders compared and discussed their findings as a class, and then drew the bacteria they observed in their individual Petri dishes. “Kids don’t really get to experience this kind of stuff at this age,” Finkel said. “It’s really important that they understand the role of microbiology and bacteria in their lives.”

The students — including Finkel’s own second-graders, twins Rebecca and Anna — both learned from and enjoyed the experience. “It's really cool that you can see how many bacteria you have when you don't wash your hands and how many you have when you do wash your hands,” said Rebecca.

Anna added, “It's like you can actually see what's going on!”

On one level, the experiment reinforced in a tangible way what the students already knew — that you should always wash your hands. But Finkel’s motivation goes beyond simply educating kids about bacteria and proper hygiene: he saw this experiment as an opportunity to make a lasting impact on young students.

By involving the students in hands-on experiments, Finkel offers them a different perspective about learning and inquiry. He hopes to foster curiosity and problem-solving, not just in science, but in all aspects of their lives. “Mostly what I’m trying to impart is excitement about learning,” he added.

Bringing microbiology into the elementary classroom is itself an experiment, and the results are encouraging, Finkel said.

“The earlier students learn science, the earlier they’re able to understand the world around them. The earlier they’re able to do better in school, the earlier we can start encouraging them to ask important questions about how things work and provide them with the tools to begin to explore and study the world around them.”