Bringing STEM experiences to young students in Latin America

The crisis in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education extends outside of the United States and is profound in the developing world. Many countries in Latin America provide young students with very limited opportunities to become engaged with science. In 2014 a group of Harvard graduate students decided to face this problem head-on by creating an organization, called Clubes de Ciencia Mexico, that aims to expand access to high quality STEM education through free workshops focused on science engagement for high school and college students in Mexico. These one-week hands-on workshops, called Clubes, are co-taught by graduate students from top universities in the United States (including Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Berkeley) and graduate students and professors from local Mexican schools. Each workshop is completely free and delivers a topic focused on creative and fun science to groups of roughly 15-20 students. The workshops are delivered during school breaks to students completing their last two years of high school or first two years of university. The Clubes aim to inspire creativity and critical thinking while highlighting the importance of higher education and presenting career opportunities in the sciences.

Since 2014, the program has grown from 10 Clubes to now having delivered almost 150 workshops in more than 6 cities in Mexico to over 1,750 students. Over the past two years this model has also quickly spread to Colombia, and Bolivia and more recently to Paraguay, Peru and Brazil! These Clubes de Ciencia chapters are now part of a larger organization called Science Clubs International.

Clubes de Ciencia Mexico Team in Guanajuato

One of the main goals of these workshops is to bring high quality science education to youth and to create an international network of scientific communities. One of the very first students who participated in Clubes de Ciencia Mexico is now a graduate student at California Institute of Technology, and several more have enrolled in summer research internships in their local countries and abroad. The Clubes de Ciencia Mexico team believes that expanding access to high quality science education has long-term effects on the economy and health of a country. Science is an integral part of everyday life, and everyone should have an opportunity to learn basic science principles. Science education leads to better trained doctors, agriculturalists, researchers, as well as citizens who can make better informed decisions about genetically modified foods, medical options, or the many other aspects in which science is involved.

Despite the incredible importance of science education, there are still many barriers to overcome so everyone can receive a high quality education. One of the largest barriers is the expensive and fragile nature of the equipment needed to run certain experiments. The Clubes rely on equipment and reagents from host institutions for all experimental processes. In many occasions, lack of equipment has limited the experimental and hands-on nature of the Clubes. In one case, a curriculum had to be re-written after they were unable to access a PCR machine at a local university. More importantly, as the Clubes were expanding and engaging with citizen science projects, the need for portable equipment became paramount.

miniPCR has played an enabling role in the growth of Clubes

miniPCR has played a very important role in allowing students in the Clubes to do direct experimentation and citizen science focused fieldwork. Several workshops in Mexico and Colombia have used miniPCR to allow students to do hands-on projects. One workshop, run by Lori Shapiro and Angelica Cibrián Jaramillo in Mexico, looked at the coevolutionary relationship between Mexican plants, specifically peppers and squash (chiles and calabaza) and insects. The students traveled to field sites where they were able to collect insects from these plants, extract DNA, and use PCR and phylogenetic analysis to understand the kinds of species that live on each plant. This ongoing project allows students to study symbiosis and coevolution in ecology, through hands-on DNA analysis in a way that would not have been possible without a portable PCR.

This partnership has made possible ongoing citizen projects for Latin American students

Another workshop, run by Adriana Espinosa and Hugo Arellano Santoyo, studied the microorganisms that make fermentation possible. In particular, they studied the fermentation of agave plants to produce Mezcal, a popular Mexican drink. This workshop used miniPCR to amplify regions of the yeast genomes present in Mezcal, bringing students equipped with science tools to better understand a traditional Mexican biotechnology process, Mezcal production.

This partnership of Clubes de Ciencia Mexico and miniPCR has allowed the transition from one-weeklong workshops to ongoing citizen projects. Citizen science is a new field where individuals collect aggregate data that could not be collected by a single lab due to the sample size or geographic diversity. Citizen science has value as both an educational tool, allowing students to participate in meaningful research, and as a source of data for scientific discovery. Portable technology, such as miniPCR, is becoming a primary tool for Clubes de Ciencia to scale-up to citizen science projects and begin collecting databases of information about diverse subjects.

Students are currently studying symbiosis and coevolution between native calabaza plants and insects through phylogenetic DNA analysis

The collaboration between miniPCR and Clubes de Ciencia Mexico is a unique example in Latin America for how science education can be spread to public universities to reach high school and college students through interactive experimentation and citizen science projects. As Clubes de Ciencia Mexico, Science Clubs International, and other forms of science education expand, it is crucial that this education involves hands-on experiments to engage students with meaningful research experiences and to create interest in science as a whole. miniPCR is proud to be in the hands of young scientists across Latin America, as a tool in their educational journeys.

miniPCR and blueGel getting ready to be deployed at Clubes de Ciencia in Mexico

— To learn more, and get involved with Clubes de Ciencia,