IGERT Trainees and Associate, Making a Difference through Outreach in Schools

Torri Rinker experienced the ‘Eureka Effect’ as a high school freshman back in her hometown of Kennewick, Washington, and she’s been trying to share the mood ever since.

“It was biology class and we started learning about DNA, and what it did, this relatively simple molecule that affects every single aspect of your body, and it was fascinating,” says Rinker, now a third year Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering.

“We did these experiments, and the fact that we could actually manipulate DNA in an organism and make it do something different, was just mind blowing to me," Rinker continues. “This was my moment of wow, when I first thought, ‘oh my God, science is really cool.’”

Lately, she’s been spreading that message as part of the leadership team of the Education and Outreach committee, an energetic, mission-driven collective and one of seven committees within BBUGS (which stands for “Bioengineering and Bioscience Unified Graduate Students”).

Based in the Parker H. Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience, BBUGS brings together students from eight different schools to form the most diverse graduate student group on the Georgia Institute of Technology campus. Meanwhile, Rinker and her colleagues on the Education and Outreach committee are extending the BBUGS life off campus as well, through a series of programs and events aimed at Atlanta area K-12 students.

For Denise Sullivan, who co-chairs the committee with Rinker and Tom Bongiorno, the interaction with younger students feels familiar.

“My mom is a teacher, and I’ve seen how kids get super excited about science when they are exposed to it,” says Sullivan, a third-year Ph.D. student who did some tutoring while an undergrad at the University of South Carolina, where she saw the ‘Eureka Effect’ unveil itself repeatedly during her involvement with the FIRST LEGO® League (FLL) program (which is designed to inspire young people’s interest in science and technology).

“I’ve always been interested in outreach,” Sullivan says. “Getting kids, especially girls, interested in science before they become, you know, ‘too cool for school,’ is important. Most kids don’t know what engineering or research is. So, educating the public about what we do is a big part of our mission.”

Bongiorno’s outreach efforts have resulted in a two-way educational experience that he says grew out of the NSF-funded Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program in Stem Cell Biomanufacturing. IGERT students participate in a number of outreach activities.

“The idea was to bring the world of stem cell engineering to high school students – it’s an exciting area of research, and we wanted to get students interested in the science in general,” says Bongiorno, who has gotten something in return.

“This experience has improved my ability to communicate with people who don’t have a scientific background,” he says. “Students, their parents – educated people, who might not know as much about biology as I do. So, it’s forced me to break it down and communicate clearly.”

He and his fellow grad students have ample opportunities therein. Here’s just some of what the BBUGS Education and Outreach does, typically in collaboration with local schools, to showcase science and the potential for future career opportunities to K-12 students:
On-site outreach for local public schools, such as an upcoming program at Benjamin Mays High School (May 21), when two BBUGS teams will do separate presentations (one on biomaterials, one on stem cells) for two different high school science classes. This will include a explanation of stem cell differentiation through a game played on a plinko board, designed by a BBUGS team.
Buzz on Biotechnology is an annual open house for middle and high school students, teachers and parents, held in the fall. Visitors can learn about biotechnology research, tour Georgia Tech laboratories and experience hands-on demonstrations of different bioengineering and bioscience concepts. Last year, for example, visitors were invited to see and touch a real human brain, to learn the structure and function of the neurological system. This fall’s Buzz on Biotechnology is Saturday, Oct. 18, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Mentorship through a regular science club at partner schools in Atlanta. According to Rinker, “20 to 30 grad students volunteered behind the scenes or on a regular basis to mentor high school students through a variety of engineering and science projects.” The science club program is a work in progress, Rinker says. It’s still evolving, like the grad students who are making it all happen. Rinker and Sullivan will rotate out of leadership this summer. “We’ll let Tom take the lead,” Sullivan says.
Bongiorno, who seems to have invented a few new hours in the day, is up to the task.

“My first week at Georgia Tech, I did my first event with Education and Outreach, and the more I do it, the more I like it,” says Bongiorno, who also is president of the BioEngineering Graduate Student Advisory Committee.

Rinker may be leaving the leadership team, but the education and the outreach, that’s organic stuff to her, the result of a wow moment, something that might as well be in her DNA. Before coming to Georgia Tech, she taught in the Teach for America program, in Newark, New Jersey.

“This is something I’m passionate about,” she says. “Quality in education, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] education in particular is a passion. I think my career can go in a variety of directions. I love science and research and I love teaching. But if you think about it, it’s really all teaching.”