What can you create with two long colorful “bendy straws,” two small plastic bags, cardboard, and tape? The respiratory system, as well as lots of excitement and curiosity among the 20 New Haven public school students in grades three through eight participating in the Arts & Anatomy Science Academy (AASA). Co-sponsored by Yale School of Medicine (YSM) and Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, this pilot is part of Yale University’s Pathways to Science Program.
Each Saturday for six weeks this summer, the AASA students are focusing on a different part of human anatomy. They have learned about the foot, heart, ear, lungs, and brain. In their final week, they will study the eye, and have an opportunity to tour Yale’s Cushing Center, with its 450 brains on display. The class alternates between YSM’s campus and the Netter School of Medicine campus each week, exposing students to both schools.
Linda Jackson, director of YSM’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Community Engagement, and Equity, came up with the idea for this program in collaboration with Charles Collier, Jr., assistant dean, health career pathways, at the Netter School of Medicine; Marcella Monk Flake, co-owner and executive director of New Haven’s Monk Center for Academic Enrichment and Performing Arts; and Flake’s husband Dudley Flake, the other co-owner of and musical director for the Monk Center. The Monk Center provides afterschool music and STEM programming for New Haven public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
In late 2017, after Jackson attended a student musical performance at the Monk Center, it struck her that the Monk Center could provide a great foundation for a YSM community engagement program. She knew the Netter School of Medicine had offered science programs for kids in the past, so she reached out to Collier about the possibility of offering a joint program. Though they had not previously collaborated on a project, Jackson and Collier already had built a strong relationship, in part through their both serving on the board of directors of the National Association of Medical Minority Educators, Inc., Collier as president, Jackson as secretary. Multiple conversations between Jackson, Collier, and the Flakes over the next several months enabled the pilot to launch in June 2018.
The Monk Center’s music/STEM combination is not random: Marcella Monk Flake is very close with her cousin Thelonious Monk III, the son of the late influential jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Sphere Monk. Monk III serves as a consultant to the Monk Center, and he has worked with the Flakes over the past decade to promote Jazz and STEAM programming (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). The Monk Center helps advance the Theloenus Monk Institute of Jazz’s mission to preserve Thelonious Sphere Monk’s legacy through jazz and STEM education. As explained on the Monk Institute’s website, “studies show that the most crucial years to engage students in STEM learning are grades 4-8. If students begin STEM studies in these early years, they are more likely to continue on this path.”
For Jackson, creating the AASA and similar programing is much more than a job. She grew up in the New Haven area and when she was younger “felt like invisible gates kept her, as African American, and many other minorities in the New Haven community from experiencing Yale’s resources.” She believes this dynamic resulted in “talented minority students being intimidated by Yale and running away from it, even though they were qualified to apply, get accepted, and attend.” Jackson believes that “when young people have true access to Yale, with the ability to spend time in its classrooms and labs, it gives them confidence that they do belong at a place like Yale and opens doors for them.” Jackson anticipates the AASA will expand in the future to include kids beyond the Monk Center, broadening the reach of its community engagement.
The AASA Saturday sessions held on the YSM campus are led Shermaine Hutchins MPH ’18 and Melanie Brady. Both teachers have strong STEM backgrounds. Hutchins attended YSM’s Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) in 2013, which Jackson at one time oversaw. When Hutchins completed the SMDEP, he was determined to attend an Ivy League school, and in May 2018, graduated from Yale School of Public Health. Brady is a Yale PhD student in Neuroscience, who served as a TA in one of Jackson’s previous programs. Jackson recruited Hutchins and Brady to teach in the program in part because of their STEM backgrounds, but also because Jackson correctly predicted that kids would find their high-energy personalities engaging. Jackson also thought it would be beneficial to have a male and a female role model for students.
Similarly, Collier recruited Darrick Potter, Chevaugn Wellington, Richard Ferro, Jaye George and Alyssa Thomas, all current Netter medical students, to teach on the Saturdays the program is held at Quinnipiac.
In class, Hutchins and Brady do not call the AASA students by their first names. Rather, every session begins with each student introducing himself or herself in front of the classroom as Doctor, followed by their name. Class protocol is for everyone to refer to each other by their doctor names; the same occurs at the Quinnipiac University campus.
Early on a recent Saturday morning, when Hutchins asked who was excited to learn about lungs, students responded enthusiastically, with hands raised high in the air. The strong participation continued throughout the morning. By the end of the lesson, the students were confidently referencing such components of the respiratory systems as the trachea, bronchi, and alveoli. Importantly, they are encouraged to respond to questions in easy-to-hear voices.
During the lung session, the students at first seemed hesitant when asked if they were ready to make a model of the lungs. But as soon as they saw Brady holding giant colored straws, the excitement in the room grew and model-building began. The students helped each other tape together bendy straws, cut out cardboard lungs, noses, and mouths, and plastic baggies. In about 20 minutes, it appeared everyone had the ability to fill their “plastic bag lungs” with air by blowing into the straws.
Each session of the AASA incorporates art, with local New Haven artist Brandon Beard serving as a mentor. The kids experiment with different mediums. While they created model lungs during the lung class, they drew pictures of the heart and the ear in those sessions.
Claudia Merson, director of public school partnerships in Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, explains that her office provides all the logistical support for Pathways to Science programming, so that members of the university who want to offer a program need only provide the content and the teaching. This encourages more programming. Pathways is open to public school students from New Haven, West Haven, and Orange, Connecticut.
The students participating in the AASA now are part of the Pathways to Science system. This means they can participate in other Pathways programs at Yale, free of charge, until they graduate from high school. Merson explains that the intent behind Pathways is to provide students with exposure to a wide range of STEM subjects, and when students find a topic that really engages them, they can seek out a deeper experience, such as an internship. About 2,000 kids are currently involved with Pathways; 500 past participants are now college students.
Merson is particularly excited about the AASA because of the collaboration between YSM and the Netter School of Medicine. She envisions Pathways engaging in more collaborations with Quinnipiac and other local colleges and universities going forward.
Collier also is excited about the collaboration. “The opportunity for Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine to partner with Yale School of Medicine and the community-based Monk Center on such an important initiative, is personally and professionally gratifying,” he said. “With the support of our institutions, we are able to plant the seed through which science enrichment prevails, with the long-term goal of advancing diversity in the health professions.”