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Positive mindset through science: Can I be a “stem cell” when I grow up?

Author: Raquel Leão Monteiro

Have you ever been asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Young children’s dreams seem limitless. We want to be a popstar, a doctor, an astronaut, an actor – all at the same time. I, for one, wanted to be a radio broadcaster. However, curiosity led me down a scientific path as time went by. Science offered me new perspectives to keep track of my surroundings and be resilient when nothing seemed to make sense.

As an aspiring molecular pathologist, one of my goals was to keep aligning this knowledge with the powerful impact of education. Because of this, through the Leadership Development Program ‘Teach for Portugal’ I started working full-time as a pedagogic mentor in a local school. As such, I develop collective leadership approaches with teachers and other community elements through co-teaching in class, and advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion, to ensure all children can fulfil their potential. I give my students the opportunity to experiment and put into practice what they learned in class. If not possible, due to material or space limitations, I prepare a surprise topic to motivate their learning experience outside the typical class curriculum.

Like Native Scientists, this work enables me to foster learning experiences for students and show them how the language of science can have a positive impact on their lives regardless of economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. I want my experience as an educator to be transformative, and I recently had an illuminating example of my work’s impact.

During a sixth-grade science class, we were studying how various cells split and grow, stumbling upon a peculiar group of cells – stem cells. Typically, these are not included in the curriculum, but I decided to explore them in class anyway. Stem cells are known to be the earliest cells of most tissues, found in several stages of development, and can renovate and differentiate into various types of cells when facing adversities. Plus, they undergo a period of proliferation in an undifferentiated state until they specialize based on the environment around them. Basically, over time, they go through a phase of rapid growth and multiplication while they are still uncertain of what to do, until they eventually develop specific characteristics that match their environment or needs.

Like stem cells, between childhood and adulthood, all of us face a transitional phase of growth and development. Our surroundings and experiences influence our adolescence. In this phase, we begin to identify who we are, what we like or dislike, and who we want to be later in life which, metaphorically, is very similar to these cells’ ability.

Stereotypes about some students portray them as ordinary rebellious, distracted, thoughtless, and daring adolescents. However, educators can engage them within the class, more than expected. Two weeks after my lesson, when asked to develop SMART goals and share what they want to be when they grow up in a citizenship education class, three students said they wanted to be stem cells. I was speechless with this outcome. They explained that they wanted to be able to fight no matter the challenges they face. It amazed them that stem cells could be anything and were hopeful they could learn how to be like them. With that, these “new aspiring stem cells” expressed the desire to find new ways to adapt their lives, even if they didn´t have a particular answer right now.

As stated by UNESCO (2022), the increase in scientific literacy must also consider societal needs and global challenges. Public engagement with science needs to include social context and research must endeavour to be relevant to it. While students absorbed their everyday experiences, economically or culturally, some of them felt inspired by stem cells. The cells were something they couldn´t see or touch, but had the opportunity to learn about their behaviour and that was enough to initiate a positive mindset.

This experience is proof that the intertwine between science, knowledge, and general experiences is all around us, but sometimes it's difficult to measure its power. Knowing about stem cells was powerful enough to rescue hope, advocating the need for diversity, self-growth, and resilience in this class. Nevertheless, what if this knowledge could be communicated this way to other publics? Would stem cells also inspire us to be the best version of ourselves as we grow older?


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