Modesto-based mobile science center draws national attention

06/26/2014 8:55 PM

06/26/2014 8:58 PM

The Modesto-based Ag In Motion mobile science center has drawn national attention as a prime example of a cutting-edge educational trend: learning labs on wheels.

“It’s a field trip that comes to them,” explained Michele Laverty, head of the National Ag Science Center, which runs Ag In Motion. “We serve every middle-schooler in the county for free,” she said. The rolling ag lab is the only such vehicle in Northern California, but is in discussions to create similar programs with California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and California State University, Fresno, she said.

The concept of taking the science show on the road has gained its own industry group, the Mobile Laboratory Coalition, which is holding its annual convention in Modesto this week. Ag In Motion and the STEM Mobile Lab Center of Moreno Valley College, a junior college in Riverside County, took center stage Thursday as the 35 convention-goers walked through.

Ag in Motion is a trailer lined on both sides with stools and stations set up to experiment with density, extract plant DNA and conduct other ag-centered science activities. The STEM trailer has removable oval tables in the center, storage along one side and couch seating in one area, as well as a compact galley and a bathroom. Both trailers have wheelchair lifts.

Trailer configurations are endless, said Rick Armstrong of Farber Specialty Vehicles. One he designed had a 60-inch monitor facing bleacher seating. Others have a hideaway bed or labs with sinks. Broadband Internet can be provided through cell towers or satellite connections.

The Moreno Valley rig began as a trailer shell and cost $360,000 to outfit, Armstrong said. The U.S. Department of Education paid the tab as part of a multi-year grant to a college outreach program, said lab center specialist Armone Lochard.

The mobile lab has been in service for only two months, but will expand to take science to all grades at schools across Riverside and San Bernardino counties, he said. Because most classes include 35 to 40 students, the vehicle has an outside monitor showing what’s happening inside.

Moreno College science majors and those considering teaching careers help staff the lab, Lochard said. “It’s also a learning experience for them. They get the feedback from the students.”

Looking over the outfitted trailers, pharmacology researcher Allison Feduccia was mulling creation of a mobile lab to encourage study in neuroscience and physiology in Austin, Texas. “It’s a great way to broaden outreach,” she said, “I’m here, hearing what’s worked. There’s a lot to think about.”

Taking science lessons to low-income fourth- and fifth-graders in Memphis, Tenn., is the goal of Sherry Painter, a chemistry teacher at LeMoyne-Owen College. The college has a donated city bus it has stripped down for its makeover, but has yet to nail down the funding.

“We want them to have an authentic science experience. I want them to put on goggles, gloves and lab coats and really envision themselves as scientists. It’s a powerful thing,” Painter said.

“It’s such an ‘Oh, wow!’ event, it hooks their brain,” said Tony Beck of the National Institutes of Health, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. NIH helps fund educational efforts for health and medical science.

“It’s hands-on, inquiry-based, especially for communities where kids never thought of going to college. It’s a really wonderful way to bring experiences to rural communities,” Beck said. Interest is not only nationwide, he said. “Even Singapore is sending people to see what they’re doing.”

Sarah Weisberg could help them there. She helps run the BioBus, a remade 1974 city transit bus bringing cell biology lessons across New York City thanks to Cell Motion Laboratories. The bus has powerful microscopes that kids cluster around, with the image shown on screens everyone can see. Solar panels power the technology.

“We’re trying to give them a view of what practicing science is like,” Weisberg said. “Every day, we hear, ‘I never liked science before, but now I do,’ ” she said. “I had one student say, ‘We learn so much more through activities.’ ”

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