Detroit Mercy senior Luciana Riachi spent her spring break not on some beach in a warm locale enjoying some much-needed relaxation. Instead, she spent time introducing high-level scientific concepts to young children.
In early March, Riachi and several Detroit Mercy College of Engineering & Science students brought microscopes to show dozens of kindergarteners in Canton and Dearborn the science behind fruit flies. The educational outreach program is led by Associate Professor of Biology Jacob Kagey and is based on his own lab’s research, which involves mapping genetic mutations that cause tissue overgrowth, or tumors, in fruit flies.
Working with kindergarteners was quite an experience for Riachi and her fellow Titans, who relished sharing their science expertise.
“I love working with kids, especially when they’re so fascinated by science, something that I’m very passionate about,” said Riachi, a Biology major and Psychology and Leadership minor. “Even though I’m not a teacher, just feeling that role of being an educator is great.”
The students helped the kindergarteners look at fruit flies underneath dissecting microscopes. They examined the differences in eye color and wing structure and attempted to count the number of living flies in a vial. A lab packet designed by Kagey allowed the kindergarteners to record their observations by coloring a cartoon fly.
“It’s really exciting for them,” Kagey said. “They get to feel like they’re scientists, and they are, they’re collecting data. The beauty of working with fruit flies is you can ask these incredibly complex genetic questions in a very simple organism.”
Although the kindergarteners seemed to enjoy looking at the fruit flies, there was some initial queasiness toward the insects.
“A lot of them were a little squeamish,” Riachi said. “They thought it was disgusting and told us a few stories about how they found some fruit flies in their homes.”
Kagey created the outreach program in 2017 when he learned that some science activities were being removed from his son’s kindergarten curriculum. He has since led groups of Detroit Mercy students to kindergarten classrooms throughout metro Detroit. This spring marked the first return to the classroom since March 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m always blown away that I’ve never had any trouble getting student volunteers,” Kagey said. “Not that I think I would, but it is their spring break and they are more than excited to give up a day or a morning of their spring break to go work with these kindergarteners.”
Representation is also important when visiting the kindergarteners to teach them about science, Kagey said, and the diversity among the Detroit Mercy students participating in the program helps with that.
“One of the things I’m very cognizant of, and they’ve done studies since the 1970s, is that when you ask kids to draw a scientist, they basically draw me,” he said. “They draw an older white guy, scraggly hair, beard, glasses, kind of crazy-looking tall. One of the things I think is very powerful is that our student body here at Detroit Mercy is incredibly diverse, so it’s a wide range of students that widely represent the kindergarteners they’re seeing.
“We go to a kindergarten class in Dearborn and they’re seeing students of Middle Eastern descent like they are, and I think that provides such a powerful, even if it’s not an obvious message, a subconscious message that ‘I can be a scientist too.’”
Working with kindergarteners has inspired Detroit Mercy students to expand the outreach program to more schools. Kagey said he is planning additional visits to local elementary schools in May. Riachi, who works as a student ambassador for the College of Engineering & Science, took microscopes and fruit flies to a Catholic school in Lincoln Park in mid-March.
“It was a great opportunity because I was able to learn how Dr. Kagey did it and take the project on my own and present it to other students,” Riachi said.
While the main objective of the outreach program was to teach kindergarteners, Riachi and her fellow Titans also learned several things from the experience.
“What I learned is their brains are a lot more elastic than we think they are. They absorb a lot more information than we tend to believe they do,” Riachi said. “I think a lot of times, we try to oversimplify things, but we don’t understand how much they actually do understand.”
Kagey believes sharing fruit fly science with local kindergarteners is rooted in Detroit Mercy’s Jesuit and Mercy Mission.
“There’s the old adage of academia being an ivory tower and the idea of, not just the Jesuit and Mercy mission, but the scientific mission, is dissemination, sharing what you find,” Kagey said. “And so for me, it’s just so great that we can take stuff we find and get it not just in the community, but get it in the young community, take into schools and be a part of that.”