Arms outstretched, Shameka Williams shimmied from side-to-side like a human tug of war as her students debated whether oobleck, an ooze-like mix of cornstarch and water, is a solid or a liquid.
“Okay, so we’ve all come to determine it’s a soquid or it’s a sliquid,” Williams told her eighth grade science class at Drew Charter School.
She loves this career; the funny thing is she never planned to do it.
She was on her way to medical school when she arrived at Georgia State University more than 10 years ago.
Then she began working for the Bio-Bus, a program in the Department of Biology that brings college students to K-12 classrooms across the state to teach science lessons using teaching modules, essentially curricula-in-a-box complete with hands-on exhibits.
Her life and career trajectory were forever altered.
“It was the best thing I ever did,” she said. “I just realized how much I enjoyed the kids.”
She started planning her classes around when she could work for Bio-Bus, visiting schools near and far to teach students about everything from the medicinal properties of plants to the structure of DNA.
One day, on her way out of one class, a young girl stopped her.
“She looks at me and she says, ‘Do you have to go? You’re so much cooler than my teacher,’” Williams said. “The fact that in that short time, that child thought the world of me, that was my ‘aha’ moment.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2007, Williams went right to Georgia State’s College of Education and got a master’s degree in science education.
For the last four years, Williams has been an eighth grade science teacher at Drew Charter School, an award-winning public school in East Lake, where she has used the same curricula and methods she learned while working for the Bio-Bus.
During her time there, the rate of students passing the state of Georgia standardized eighth grade science test climbed to 91 percent from 74 percent.
Now Williams spends her summers instructing on best practices in science pedagogy.
More than 80 percent of teachers surveyed said that a single Bio-Bus visit improved both their content knowledge and confidence in science teaching and 83 percent reported that they are more likely to offer more hands-on science as a result of seeing the Bio-Bus modules.
Georgia State biology Professor Barbara Baumstark founded the Bio-Bus in 1999 after seeing the correlation between students’ enthusiasm for science and their exposure to hands-on, inquiry-based science instruction during their K-12 schooling.
Since then, the program has expanded to include more than a dozen student fellows, two vans and two buses, each of which is a mobile teaching laboratory. Bio-Bus also receives grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the U.S. Department of Education.
Bio-Bus has served more than 200,000 students in public and private schools throughout the state, teaching science lessons using tools like liquid nitrogen, live millipedes and even cow hearts.
“Any time you can incorporate real life and hands-on in a small group environment, you’ve got a great lesson,” said Melinda Foster, a seventh grade life sciences teacher at Luella Middle School in Henry County.
Foster said she has seen quiet students transform when the Bio-Bus arrives.
“These kids who aren’t as vocal in big groups come out of their shell in a smaller group,” she said.
The experience is memorable for students and Bio-Bus fellows alike.
“You really see how the teaching impacts them,” said Shue Moua, a Georgia State student who has been a Bio-Bus fellow for more than three years. “Bio-Bus has made me think I want to teach.”
As students filed out of the classroom following Moua’s lesson, one shouted: “Best class ever!”
For more on the Bio-Bus, visit http://www.biobus.gsu.edu.