Institute for Biological Interfaces of Engineering

IBIOE Newsletter Vol. 1 Issue 1

IBIOE Involves Graduate Students in Community Engagement & Training Programs
IBIOE Newsletter, Vol. 1, Issue 1, December 2010

IBIOE graduate community engagement What do empty paper towel rolls, a stuffed animal, squirt bottles filled with water, black acrylic paint, yellow hair gel, Band-Aids®, cork stops, Styrofoam™ balls and snack-size plastic baggies have in common? These items make one of IBIOE’s many community engagement biomedical demonstrations possible.

With IBIOE community engagement projects, researchers can transfer their work from the lab to real-world applications for others to see firsthand. It’s a win-win dynamic for all involved.

IBIOE researchers, in conjunction with high school and middle school teachers, have developed half a dozen classroom-friendly modules that convey complex biomedical ideas that teachers can incorporate in the classroom. The modules explain complicated scientific concepts such as stem cells, drug delivery processes, chronic inflammation and encapsulation — all on a level that 10-year-olds can understand.  

There are different avenues of community engagement. One goal is to help science educators complement their teaching programs with real-world problems and research topics. Another is to draw interest to engineering and science fields from, for example, Girl Scout troops, middle school science classes or museum visitors. Students might think that a career in science could never be a possibility, but by participating in an IBIOE workshop, they may become motivated to dream past perceived boundaries.

So, simply put, IBIOE educators strive to draw attention to innovation and technology while planting the seeds in young minds that tissue engineering is a field that can and should be approached from a wide range of disciplines. Moreover, IBIOE researchers help teachers add cutting edge technological concepts to their classroom while helping the researchers become better presenters and communicators outside the laboratory setting.

IBIOE researcher Cheryl Gomillion credits IBIOE’s community engagement with honing her skills as a scientific investigator. “Leading community engagement programs has helped me better understand things. In order for me to present to other people, I have to really understand the material myself. It clarifies ideas and reinforces what I already know.”

Gomillion adjusts her scientific terminology based on her audience. “Community engagement programs help me communicate with the general public because I use different terminology when talking to a fourth-grader than I do when I’m talking to another scientist. It provides me with a completely different professional development experience.”

Community engagement demonstrations are also presented to groups with a richer understanding of science, such as the students at Monterrey Institute of Technology  in Monterrey, Mexico. IBIOE researcher Erin McCave spoke and led tissue engineering workshops for undergraduate students at the Inside Biomedical Symposium. She met with students who had little experience working with cells but were very eager to learn more about tissue engineering.

McCave feels IBIOE outreach has helped her become more passionate about her tissue-engineering work. “When you present, you’re the expert. The audience has questions that make you think about why you do what you do, making it all click. Working with students and discovering how they think about things makes you think more. So it makes me excited about what I do and why I do it, and it helps me think about how my research can move forward.”

McCave says her presentation was popular because the students were so excited by the material. “I reached out to 60 people. It was a wonderful opportunity to introduce Clemson University graduate research and IBIOE. Community engagement experiences let me influence and motivate others with what I’m doing.”

Priceless participant reactions provide memory-making moments for IBIOE researchers. Gomillion says, “The Clemson University Board of Visitors toured the IBIOE laboratories, and we showed them the highlights of our work. I saw a light bulb turn on in one person’s head; he gasped and said, ‘I never knew that’s how stem cells really worked.’ It’s common knowledge to us, but to see someone else come into our environment and understand it, that’s when you know you’ve done your job.”

McCave agrees, “When you see their eyes sparkle and light up and say, ‘I never would have thought about it that way’ — that’s the best part because you’re inspiring someone else.”