Prof Pays It Forward With New Bio Course

April 29, 2014 —  

CBL Course

Locke students working with "atomic slime"

Biology prof Monica Togna grew up in an inner city as the seventh of eight children. While she considers herself “one of the lucky ones”—surrounded by supportive teachers and family members—many children she grew up with were not as fortunate.

“Cities can be a tough place for any little kid,” Togna says. “I don’t know where I would be [today] without the extra opportunities, the encouragement and the discipline.”

Togna and the students of her community-based-learning course, Connections in Biology, are paying that support forward to the 6th and 7th grade students of Philadelphia’s Locke Elementary School.

Since the start of the spring term, Togna’s students have been leading an after-school science club at Locke, building on concepts and skills they’ve learned in their Drexel courses, connecting those ideas to weekly lessons and demonstrations, and identifying careers that utilize those ideas in the real world. Concepts range from DNA extraction using common over-the-counter supplies, to microbiology, biodiversity and genetics.

“The [Locke] students experience science in a hands-on, inquiry-based, fun manner, and also see what a typical college student/scientist is like in real life. Hopefully, some of them will begin to visualize themselves in that role in their own futures,” Togna says.

Sparking a passion for science at a young age is key; she points to national STEM reports and standardized test scores, which show a sharp drop in achievement and interest in science-related disciplines after 4th and 5th grade.

“The Philadelphia school districts are no exception,” she says. “Budget cuts have left many schools in a tough situation. The need for additional science exposure and enrichment is clear.”

When Togna proposed the Connections in Biology course, she was worried there might not be enough student interest on campus.

In just 36 hours, she was pleasantly—and overwhelmingly—proven wrong.

“The course filled within a day and a half…I get emails everyday from students who are waitlisted or who are inquiring about when the course will run again. That’s not a testament to me; it’s a testament to our students and the atmosphere cultivated at Drexel.”

It’s a win-win for everyone involved, she explains. Drexel students refine their planning and communication skills and connect their course material to the bigger picture, and the children at Locke receive the same support and encouragement that made such a difference in Togna’s own life.

“If I can make a difference, even in a small way, then that is my driving force. I am thankful Drexel and its students are giving me that chance.”