At the Citizen Science Lab. Photo courtesy of CSL.

This week in a bright and spacious science lab, students are examining spider webs and crystals through the lenses of brand new microscopes. Next week, another group will run experiments to discover how much vitamin C is in our food.

These and other opportunities are available to students, parents and educators at The Citizen Science Lab – the city’s first and only – located at Pittsburgh’s Energy Innovation Center and operated through a partnership between Duquesne University and Urban Innovation21. A celebration of the new lab’s mid-June opening will take place at 5 p.m. on July 16 at the lab.

“It’s a great asset to have in the community because kids who have never really thought about (science) or who haven’t been exposed to it, now actually get exposed to it,” says André Samuel, director of the CSL.

Funded by anonymous supporters and staffed with professors from Duquesne and Point Park universities, the 1,600-square-foot facility contains anything found in a full-fledged lab. There are UV spectrophotometers, incubators, centrifuges, thermocyclers and compound, digital and fluorescent microscopes. There are even lab coats, goggles and gloves for the young scientific researchers.

“I would have loved to have had a space to go work on my inner geekdom, my natural inclination for the sciences,” says Samuel, a Duquesne graduate with a Ph.D. in biology.

Samuel and his program director, Carrianne Floss, have been running the CSL since its “soft opening” in January out of a temporary basement facility in the Energy Innovation Center. Through outreach programs at various organizations like Propel Schools, Holy Family Academy, The Homewood Children’s Village, Higher Achievement, church groups and with individuals, they’ve introduced discovery-based learning to those who might otherwise not have these opportunities.

The lab is also an approved partner with the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

And it seems to already be a hit with the kids. Tawnya Burke’s daughter Jordan, 11, and son Ronald, 14 have participated in Saturday workshops and are enrolled in their third week of the lab’s seven weeks of summer camps.

“They love it,” she says. “My daughter enjoys doing the experiments. It’s sparked her interest toward science. They are so encouraging, and there is no worry about grades.”

Students at CSL microbiology summer camp place millipedes into a “rotting log” terrarium. Photo courtesy of CSL.
Students at CSL microbiology summer camp place millipedes into a “rotting log” terrarium. Photo courtesy of CSL.

The lab operates in two ways, explains Samuel. Leaders can bring their groups to the lab and conduct research based on programs outlined in a course catalog. Or CSL staff and equipment will travel to neighborhood schools and organizations.

“We find the students are more receptive to it when they actually do work in a real laboratory as opposed to a classroom setting,” says Samuel.

Fees vary, depending on the program, and range anywhere from $10 to $95. Summer camps are $175 a week and after-school programs are $75 a week. Scholarships are available.

For lifelong learners, the lab is hosting its first adult program the third week in August for those with a green thumb (or not).

“You can bring soil samples to the lab, and then spend five days working with a Duquesne University professor, examining different microbes in your garden and figuring out which ones are more beneficial,” says Samuel.

Information about all workshops at The Citizen Science Lab is available at 412-482-3340.

Laurie Bailey

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.