The Broadcom MASTERS, the nation’s premier middle school STEM competition, emphasizes a critical component in advancing science research or any important work for that matter: collaboration. Due to the pandemic, the Society pivoted the annual in-person team challenges to a virtual format, allowing the judges to see how the students work together. On the first day of challenges, the 2020 finalists enthusiastically logged onto Zoom to meet Rebecca Miller and Julie Richards from JASON Learning, their hosts for a health science challenge called “Blood by the Numbers.” The challenge gave students an opportunity to learn about the role of ethics in science and health care disparities that exist today.
In Part One, students explored Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) through the lens of Sydney Marquis, a teenage cancer survivor. Sydney, now 21, was diagnosed when she was 11. Through a video played by Rebecca and Julie, the finalists found out more about her symptoms and experience.
With that information, the finalists were directed to their first breakout session as teams to look at three different blood smears. While none of the finalists had an extensive biology background, they used their critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration skills to discuss the challenge. They were also instructed to have one member of their group share their screen so that the judges could easily follow along with their work and thought process.
To avoid cutting each other off, Charlotte of the silver team was quick to establish some ground rules. “Let’s take turns speaking and make sure to let each other finish our thoughts before someone else speaks.” Akshar of the gold team and Zoe of the white team volunteered to be designated note takers as their group members began listing their observations of similarities and differences among the three given blood smears.
In the next breakout session of the challenge, the teams examined complete blood count (CBC) test results. Julian of the green team and Sina from the black team noted that their groups had run out of time in the last session. They reminded their teammates to be more mindful in this round. Richard from the white team suggested splitting up the questions to be quicker.
For the third breakout session, the finalists were asked to use the information they gleaned from studying the blood smears and CBC test results to offer explanations for Sydney’s symptoms. Agastya, Pauline and Madilyne of the purple team shared some facts they knew about cancer and its effect on the body to help familiarize other members in their groups.
Finalists then moved on to Part Two of the challenge, where they were tasked with considering disparities in our healthcare system. They watched another video and read additional materials about Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Baltimore who lived in poverty in the mid-20th century and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Without her knowledge, Henrietta’s cells were harvested and became the source of the first immortal cell line. Cells from this cell line, called HeLa cells, are used to study various diseases. Countless scientific discoveries and patents are also based off of research done with these cells.
Breaking out into their teams once again, the finalists discussed the ethical issues of using Henrietta’s cells without her consent and proposed policies to ensure patient privacy. All teams stressed the importance of obtaining consent, with Kai and the silver team also honing in on privacy concerns. Both aspects of Henrietta’s case merited detailed conversations, as Julian from the green team pointed out, “any one of us could have immortal cells.” Racism also played a role in how Henrietta was treated, as fellow green team member and this year’s Samueli Foundation Prize winner, Ishana, noted.
In the end, the teams settled on the same policy solutions: respect patient privacy, obtain consent before any procedure and ensure proper financial compensation. While rules and legislation in these areas have been enacted, the black team poignantly conceded that our current healthcare system still isn’t perfect. Echoing this sentiment, Zoe from the white team shared that one of her favorite parts of the challenge was “having the opportunity to not only look at the science, but also look at ways to improve it.”
To wrap up the challenge, Rebecca and Julie complimented all the Broadcom MASTERS finalists on their exemplary collaboration skills, dividing the work while keeping each other accountable and making each other think. If this first challenge of the competition week hints at what is yet to come, the future is in good hands with these middle schoolers at the helm!