University of South Carolina

SCienceLab introduces research to pre-college students

In a University of South Carolina laboratory, researchers in white lab coats carefully transfer tiny drops of liquid so they can study their own DNA. Nearby, fellow researchers study genetic disorders, polymer molecules and environmental contaminants.

Such studies are routine experiences for undergraduate and graduate students, but these experiments are being conducted by middle- and high-school students, many of whom have never been on a college campus before.

The lab experience is part of SCienceLab, an inquiry-based program designed to augment the science curriculum in middle and high schools and give students a laboratory experience similar to one they would find at college.

Created by biology professor Dr. Bert Ely, SCienceLab recently received a $536,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. The NIH award, one of only 17 Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) projects in the United States, puts the university in the company of other prestigious universities, including Cornell, Stanford, Purdue and Tufts.

Established in 2003 with a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, the two-year SEPA project has enabled Ely to continue the SCienceLab offerings for middle- and high-school students and expand the program to Furman University, which is offering two SCienceLab classes this fall.

“The program has become so popular among teachers that we were totally booked within 48 hours after announcing the labs that we had last fall,” Ely said. “This new grant will help us get other universities involved.”

Plans call for expansion to Claflin University and a college or university along the coast to make it easier for students to have a SCienceLab experience. More than 2,000 students from throughout the Palmetto State have participated in the program since its inception.

SCienceLab classes are taught by top university professors, including cell biologist Dr. Richard Showman and cancer scientist Dr. David Reisman, both from the department of biological sciences, and associate professor of chemistry Dr. Ken Shimizu, who received the 2008 Mungo Undergraduate Teaching Award.

“The labs give students the opportunity to learn what it’s like to be a scientist and to conduct research on something that is relevant to them,” said Ely, recently named director of the university’s Center for Science Education. “They talk to the undergraduate and graduate students that work in our labs, and many of them leave here believing that they can be scientists, too.”

Senior biology major Leticia Patterson, an undergraduate researcher in Ely’s lab, talked recently to SCienceLab students about their plans for college and their majors.

When a middle-school student told Patterson that he wanted to be a football player in the NFL, Patterson looked squarely at him and asked, “What’s your Plan B?”

After talking to him further about the odds of success in the NFL or the risks of being injured and sidelined early in a career, Patterson helped the student understand that a science background could enable him to be part of an NFL team as an athletic trainer or team doctor.

“This lab experience gives students exposure to college and science beyond their schools,” said Patterson, a graduate of Estill High School who hopes to attend medical school. “They think, ‘If she can do it, I can, too.’ I try to be as honest with them as I can. They don’t know about all of the careers that they can have, and this lab is a way for them to talk to real students and professors.”

Ely said the program is a good fit with the university’s research emphasis.

“This gives students a better understanding of scientific research,” he said. “Teachers believe the science content is very valuable for their studies and that coming on campus lets students see what college life is like – even if it is for only a day.

Visit to learn more about SCienceLab at USC.


  • What: NIH-funded outreach program to middle and high schools that allows pre-college students to perform scientific research
  • Who: Bert Ely created and directs the program

By Office of Media Relations

Posted: 11/13/09 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 11/13/09 @ 1:06 PM | Permalink