Hands-on experiments offered by many mobile science labs, like Seattle Children’s Science Adventure Lab, have been shown to positively impact test scores and drive interest in STEM subjects.

Researchers are calling for a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education after a new study illustrated the reach and positive impact of mobile science labs in driving continued STEM interest in children in the U.S. – an interest researchers believe educators must work to foster as the demand in the STEM job market continues to grow.

Previous studies have reported that nine of the 10 fastest growing occupations in the U.S. require STEM skills and education, and employers are seeking workers already equipped with STEM knowledge. But according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—known as “The Nation’s Report Card”— only one-third of high school students have the STEM skills needed for college-level classes and a career in STEM.

The study suggests mobile science labs, like Seattle Children’s Science Adventure Lab, are one way to enhance STEM education and keep pace with the growing demand for STEM jobs. The hands-on, interactive approach many mobile science labs use to engage students has been shown to not only improve test scores, but it also instills a deeper interest in STEM subjects.

“Mobile science labs can be a powerful platform for bringing innovative hands-on science education to kids,” said Dr. Amanda Jones, director of the Science Education Department at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and co-investigator of the recently published study in PLOS Biology. “As we know we need to do more to equip kids with the education that will allow them to take advantage of the robust opportunities in the STEM field, we’re pleased to find these labs are effective in enriching classroom education, and in some cases, filling a void in schools where these opportunities don’t exist.”

1.2 million and counting

The study is also the first to quantify the reach of mobile science labs. It found that a collective 1.2 million children across the country have experienced interactive learning activities brought to them by mobile science labs at nearly 150,000 community events.

“We really did not have an idea of how many kids were participating in these programs across the country before this study,” Jones said. “It gives you an idea of the tremendous need and desire for this type of education.”

The study surveyed the 27 member programs of the Mobile Lab Coalition (MLC), a non-profit organization that offers learning opportunities for students through laboratory-based programs developed by scientists and educators. Eighteen of the programs also offer professional development for K-12 classroom teachers, and twelve have on-site laboratory facilities students and teachers can visit. Eight loan scientific equipment to schools.

Jones’ hope is that the information from the study is used as a starting point to work toward common measures of impact assessment with mobile science labs.

Dr. Amanda Jones was a co-investigator of the first study to quantify the reach of mobile science labs.

Driving the issue close to home

Nationally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected STEM job growth of more than 1 million between 2012 and 2022. That projection is reflected in the Puget Sound region, where a recent study ranked it as the leading STEM region in the nation and measured it as having the second-highest rate of STEM jobs in the country at 12% of total employment.

The Seattle Children’s Science Education Department was launched in 2009 to support classroom science education and to help develop the next generation of scientists and healthcare leaders. A large part of that effort is the Science Adventure Lab, a custom-built, 45-foot mobile science lab outfitted with research-grade equipment and space for up to 30 students at a time.

The Science Adventure Lab, which is part of the MLC and was included in the study, brings state-of-the-art lab facilities to schools throughout Washington state that have limited science enrichment opportunities. To date, it has visited more than 150 schools and 57,000 elementary and middle school students in 66 cities. It is also the only mobile science lab in the region.

“We have found that when we engage kids in science and provide this really positive experience in elementary school, their interest in learning is sustained all the way through middle school,” Jones said.

For the past six years, Bethany Moffatt’s fourth-grade classes at Lakeridge Elementary in the Renton School District have experienced the Science Adventure Lab and gone on field trips to the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. This past year, her students learned about the five senses and were able to use equipment to test their vital signs in the mobile modules.

“They felt like being a doctor or scientist was feasible when the cool equipment that scientists and doctors used was right in front of them,” Moffatt said. “It was really nice to hear that many of my students were inspired to become doctors, nurses, engineers and scientists who want to find a cure for cancer. These kids are our future and they need to be able to see what’s possible.”

Cultivating the future of STEM

There is a vast array of STEM jobs and industries that impact daily life for many people, including construction, healthcare, research, education, information technology, and physical and social sciences. But grants and funding can only go so far in supporting STEM education.

Jones believes there is tremendous opportunity for STEM employers to take a greater interest in cultivating their future workforce by supporting educational endeavors like mobile science labs, which are often funded through grants and by local foundations.

“It’s promising to see how some companies have seen the value in investing in their future, but we feel even more can be done,” Jones said. “People need to take an interest in enhancing STEM education from an early age, planting a seed that will hopefully last a lifetime and lead to a promising future in the field.”

For more information on Seattle Children’s support of STEM education and research, please visit the Science Education Department website. If you’re interested in supporting STEM education, please visit https://giveto.seattlechildrens.org/changealife.