Monday, July 9, 2012

Interview with Keith Jacobs, July Volunteer of the Month

Written by Peggy Ni - YSP Volunteer

Keith Jacobs, a Ph.D. student in the Molecular Cell Biology Program, became interested in YSP immediately after starting at Washington University – during his first year orientation to be exact.  Since then, he has been deeply involved with numerous aspects of YSP; he has interviewed applicants as well as served as tutor or liaison for Summer Focus, and he has participated in many teaching team outings.  These days, Keith is busy serving as one of the coordinators of Teacher Researcher Partnership (TRP) and working on the Lowenstein Teaching Kits. For TRP, Keith meets with the three teachers from the St. Louis Public School system who come during the summer to conduct research in labs on campus and develop a lesson plan based on the summer research for use in the classroom.  “This year, we have the unique opportunity to work with an elementary, a middle school, and a high school teacher so that we can hopefully help students at various levels of their education,” Keith says.  During bi-weekly meetings with the teachers as well as their lab mentors, Keith offers help and useful advice in developing the lesson plans.  For the Lowenstein Teaching Kits, Keith – along with Stephanie Scherer and Rong Zeng – is currently creating one with a topic of “Diffusion and Membrane Permeability,” allowing classrooms that check it out to learn about equilibrium, selective permeability, and tonicity.  He came up with this topic because he wanted a YSP project with more chemistry involved.  His background in chemistry contributed towards the idea of a membrane permeability kit, which has chemistry elements and is a topic that is probably difficult for students to comprehend.  And, the kit includes worksheet questions, interactive classroom demonstrations, and hands-on chemistry experiments to teach the science using various methods, effectively targeting all students who learn in very different ways.  Developing these kits is not a trivial commitment.  Keith estimates that it will take about a year to complete this one.  However, the work can be enjoyable.  In Keith’s case, he particularly likes the troubleshooting, the majority of which is revolved around making sure the timing of the reactions is consistent so that the lesson can be reliably planned.  One of the most challenging issues Keith has tackled with the kit also deals with time; though diffusion is a slow process, it must be adapted to fit the length of a class period and be short enough so that the students’ attentions don’t wander. 

Despite the challenges volunteers can face with YSP, there are many reasons why being involved with the programs is worth it.  One is the memorable experiences that volunteering offers, and Keith has some he’s accumulated throughout the years.  “Surprisingly, my favorite experiences with YSP do not involve free lunch,” he prefaces.  Instead, he has most enjoyed interacting with the Summer Focus students and seeing how high school students without lab experiences or familiarity with advanced, college-level science can learn so quickly and become capable of running experiments and be incredibly knowledgeable about their research in a short amount of time.  Another reason YSP can offer so much to volunteers is that it is meaningful in the real world.  “I think that using our scientific background, including both our knowledge and our problem-solving mindset and sharing it with students contributes much more to the world than any individual scientific paper we may publish,” Keith explains.  As a result, he dedicates much of his time to the program and invests a lot of thought to how it can be made even better.  One issue he has been thinking of is that YSP has a rather limited reach; although it tries to make itself broadly available to all St. Louis Public School teachers and students, it tends to generate interest and receive applications from the same, smaller group of schools.  Keith envisions that if YSP could receive an extensive network of support and advertising in the St. Louis City School District, then YSP could become more diverse, one thing that he would love to see in YSP’s future.  In the meantime though, Keith is content using his fantastic ideas and dedicated participation to help make YSP the great organization it is.


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