Before Star Wars Episode III was released, how could we be certain that Darth Vadar was Luke’s father? No one ever conducted a paternity test. That is, until the students of CityLab at UCLA did just that.
Founded in 1998, CityLab at UCLA is a science education program that introduces low income high school students of Los Angeles County to the world of biotechnology through hands on laboratory work. They primarily work with high schools with low Academic Performance Index (API) scores that submit applications to them in hopes of participating in their program. CityLab also works with affiliates of Project STEPS, a college prep program established within the Los Angeles Unified School District in collaboration with GEAR UP.
Rather than simply having their students listen to a lecture and follow a simple protocol for an experiment, CityLab makes their modules interactive and engaging by incorporating different themes, which have included Star Wars, Mario Bros., and The Walking Dead, the last of which was a personal favorite of outgoing Executive Director Scarlett Chen and incoming Executive Director Karen Hoi. On that morning, the staff welcomed the students to an apocalyptic UCLA campus, overrun by “flesh-eating zombies.” They had all of their volunteers dress up in torn clothes and covered them in fake blood in order to hide them in different spots on campus where they could jump out and “infect” the students as they walked to lab. If any of their peers were bitten or scratched, the students were responsible for identifying which of their peers had actually been “infected” using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), and ultimately, finding a cure.
Each workshop is an opportunity to foster an appreciation of scientific research within these students; however, it is also an opportunity to expose students to higher education. Their volunteers act as mentors for the students by sharing their experiences and providing students with advice. According to Chen, by fostering relationships between staff, volunteers, and students, CityLab hopes to create a sense of community and encourage growth.
The CityLab staff works tirelessly to generate exciting lesson plans, prepare the lab equipment and supplies, and acquire funding to purchase equipment and materials for their students. And it has definitely paid off. This year, they have been able to establish a new partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, which reached out to CityLab to host a session for their kids. Additionally, with the help of their partner Project STEPS, they will have the opportunity to develop a summer day camp that models their current work.
For their commitment to mentorship and the promotion of the sciences, the UCLA Volunteer Center Fellows are proud to select CityLab at UCLA as one of the recipients of the Spring 2015 Mongelli Award for Excellence and Civic Engagement.