Three premed students are using a creative approach to teach
biology to elementary school students: they have written a play
that depicts immune system cells as crusading superheroes and an
invading flu virus as an evil villain.
The play was conceived and written by Natalie Shilo, Suzanne Jiloca and Nipa Gandhi, who founded a biological theater club called Germbusters. Their goal is to show children that biology can be fun and exciting. They even have a theme song, based on music from the Ghostbusters film.
The script, a general introduction to the immune system, is "sort of a Ghostbusters/Power Rangers action adventure," says Shilo, a junior from Framingham, Mass. "We want to energize the audience."
Germbusters fills a void in science education and campus clubs, she says. "I tried different clubs, and there wasn't one thing that I really had a passion for."
While visiting another college campus one day, she happened to see a sign about children's theater.
"The light bulb went off," Shilo says. She thought, why not teach biology in the context of a children's story?
Shilo has previously tutored elementary school students, and she has found that young children frequently get bored with lessons, wanting to play games instead. It sometimes helps to teach children by hiding the lessons in fun activities, a sort of "subliminal learning," she says.
Germbusters has about 25 members, undergraduates with a wide range of majors. Their first performance will be Monday, April 28, before an audience of third- and fourth-graders at Barclay School in Baltimore.
Shilo will play the role of General Germ, who leads the pack of invading flu germs locked in battle with heroic white blood cells inside the body of an unsuspecting child.
The child catches the flu by drinking water from the same bottle as a friend who is infected with the virus. Soon the audience is taken inside the child's body and introduced to a variety of white-blood cells called B-cells, T-cells and macrophages.
By depicting the immune system cells as superheroes, the writers are striving to grab their young audience's attention.
The infection fighters rally in the lymph nodes, or "White Blood Cell Headquarters," where Captain White Blood Cell leads the charge against the evil germs.
"They have big capes, and they can use those capes to engulf these germs," says Gandhi, also a junior from Fram-ingham, Mass.
Meanwhile, a painted backdrop shows body cells and the bloodstream, orienting the audience inside the human body.
Jiloca, a junior from Seaford, Del., is directing the play. She has been acting on stage since elementary school. She has also worked as a counselor at a theater camp for fourth- through eighth-graders since her junior year at Worcester Country School, in Berlin, Md. Children in the camp write scripts and compile songs for musicals.
"It's so wonderful to see these kids really get into the plays and have such a great time," Jiloca says. "I always look forward to doing the summer camp."
Of course, the Germbusters brand of theater is more than entertainment; it's an interactive learning experience. The performance will be followed by a question-and-answer segment.
Actually, the interaction starts even before the youngsters view the play.
"Before we present the play to the elementary school kids, we are going to give the teachers a packet of worksheets to reinforce the ideas," Gandhi says.
The students-turned-audience will have a novel classroom experience. And, as a tangible reminder of Germbusters, they will receive bookmarks decorated with color-in characters from the play.
"In addition to making biology concepts understandable, it is our goal to truly spark the interest of these children in the field of biology," the three biology majors say in their Germbusters mission statement.
The Hopkins undergrads said they may perform in other schools in the future. Germbusters is one of 35 student groups working in the community through the Office of Volunteer Services.
"We do a lot of that, actually," says Bill Tiefenwerth, director of volunteer services.
For example, another group of undergrads is using magic shows to teach chemistry. The student groups provide services in places ranging from schools to nursing homes, homeless shelters to the city jail.
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