Teaching Kids Science and Health Studied by Nationwide Children's Researchers

The Research Institute Trainee Association (RITA)
Trainee Adrianna Matos-Nieves leads a class on vaccines and immunity at Hilliard Horizon Elementary.

The Research Institute Trainee Association (RITA) teams up with Hilliard Horizon Elementary afterschool program “New Horizons”

A student at Hilliard’s Horizon Elementary School lands on the “DIPTHERIA” square of a board game patterned after Chutes and Ladders.

Adrianna Matos-Nieves, a Ph.D. candidate in the lab of Dr. Vidu Garg, in the Center for Cardiovascular Research and community outreach officer for the Research Institute Trainee Association, explains that when a person is infected with the disease, his or her lymph nodes may swell to the size of small fists on either side of the neck and a sheet of gray matter covers the throat, making it hard to breathe. She tells them that they should not worry because it is highly likely that they have all been vaccinated against this disease.

Matos-Nieves created the game to teach the 3rd and 4th graders in the afterschool class how vaccines can prevent certain diseases and that risky behaviors, such as drinking from a polluted river or trying to pet a wild animal, can expose them to infections caused by viruses, bacteria or toxins, and for which there are no cures.

“As scientists we have a civic responsibility to our immediate community to inform them about advances in healthcare and biomedical research,” Matos-Nieves says after the class.

The Research Institute Trainee Association (RITA)
Kevin Blum

And, equipping the public with the knowledge to distinguish hard scientific evidence from opinion is necessary for a healthy society, she says.

At other tables, trainees Stephanie LaHaye, PhD, a postdoctoral scientist in the Institute for Genomic Medicine, and Jacob Zbinden and Kevin Blum, graduate students in the Center for Regenerative Medicine, answer students’ questions and offer explanations and guidance. They discuss the benefits, including community or herd immunity, of being vaccinated against chicken pox, smallpox and the flu — actions that enable the players to climb ladders and finish healthy at the top of the board; and the downsides of failing to protect themselves, which sends players chuting back down toward the game’s starting point.

“The students were especially shocked by mononucleosis,” says Matos-Nieves. “They were unaware that kissing and sharing straws and cups was actually a dangerous thing to do.”

The Research Institute Trainee Association (RITA)
Stephanie LaHaye

The 9-week course introduces the children to genomics, heart development, gene therapy, microbial pathogenesis, cancer biology, neuroscience and other focuses of research at Nationwide Children’s. Horizon Elementary’s “New Horizons” program sponsors the class and covers the costs of experiments and materials.

The course offers trainees who volunteer the experience of explaining research to a diverse audience. Matos-Nieves is also motivated to show the class that science is not the domain only of old men with crazy white hair they may see in the movies.

The Research Institute Trainee Association (RITA)
Jacob Zbinden

“I am a Latina, a female, a non-native English speaker and also a scientist,” she says. “As a field we recognize that we come up with more interesting ideas when we have a very diverse workforce. Different cultures have different ways of thinking and this is invaluable as we strive to answer life's biggest questions.”

The course continues through Feb. 6. Students will investigate how bacteria grow and spread, how the brain interprets taste and finish with a math and texting experiment to help them discover whether multitasking works.