It's halfway through first period, and 10th-grade students at Frances Perkins Academy in Brooklyn are in science class—not in school, but on a specially outfitted bus parked outside.

The monitors above the microscopes flash into focus and the students are suddenly animated. "There's something moving!" "They're just crawling around." "That's crazy!" "Do we drink this?"

"Those are protists," Ben Dubin-Thaler tells the students. "And no, we don't drink this. This is puddle water I gathered in the Bronx."

Dubin-Thaler, or Dr. Ben as his students call him, is the founder of the Cell Motion BioBus, a high-tech, carbon-neutral laboratory housed in a retrofitted 1974 San Francisco transit bus. On this particular Friday last November, Dubin-Thaler is leading four classes of 10th graders in a microbiology lab.

A scarcity of scenes like this one in public schools has led to the mounting concern of parents, teachers and lawmakers about the state of math and science education nationwide. Just before Thanksgiving, President Obama gave a speech addressing the country's poor academic performance, quoting statistics that put U.S. 15-year-olds 21st in science and 25th in math compared with their peers around the world.

In that speech Obama also announced the launch of the Educate to Innovate Campaign. The effort proposes to elevate U.S. math and science rankings in the next decade by allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to the recruitment and training of new teachers, updating technology in schools, and developing interactive learning content. Along with a range of other planned programs and events, these initiatives are aimed at getting kids interested in and excited about math and science, inspiring the kind of awe that the BioBus elicits among many of the students that climb on board.

Dubin-Thaler established the BioBus in 2007 with money from his savings as well as donations from friends and family a few weeks after receiving his PhD in biology from Columbia University. Now the BioBus is in the final stages of attaining nonprofit organization status, and provides hands-on science education to more than 10,000 students a year in New York City and the Midwest.

All of the equipment on the BioBus is research grade and has been donated or attained through equipment grants. Dubin-Thaler tries to target the BioBus to schools that lack the resources to offer quality lab experiences. For many of the students at Frances Perkins Academy the BioBus offered an opportunity to use a microscope for the first time. "As a school that doesn't have a science lab, to have something like that come to you is really awesome," says Erica Tunick, the teacher who joined her class for the lab. "Unless you're a really fancy private school, you're not going to have the equipment like they have on that bus."

The high cost of equipment is just one of the many economic challenges the campaign is trying to address—a challenge that Dubin-Thaler says mobile labs like the BioBus are uniquely suited to meet. "The BioBus is a 'shared facility' that provides students with access to equipment that is not affordable by any one school," Dubin-Thaler says. "Professional scientists maintain the equipment on board the BioBus, making sure that the science stays at the cutting edge, whereas teachers often do not have the time or proper training to maintain high-tech equipment in their schools."

Using computer equipment set up with the central microscope, students can take photos of the microbial protists they have found and produce a video of the moving organisms. For teachers such as Tunick this is one of the most valuable parts of the experience. "We took all these movies and pictures and we now have this great library of material that I can use to supplement our lessons," she said.



A half hour later, the 12 students from the first class leave the bus, and Dubin-Thaler and his assistant for the day, Ric Becker, hastily set to work preparing for the next group. Between sessions Becker turns off all the microscope lights and monitors. "We run on solar energy, so we have to be careful," Becker says.

A wind turbine is attached to the front of the bus and solar panels line the roof. Inside, three microscopes are set on a metal-partitioned table against the right side of the bus. Computer monitors stretch out above each microscope. The floor is blue rubber, and moving toward the back there is a very narrow passageway leading to an area resembling a classroom, with three rows of blue vinyl-covered, cushioned benches and a large computer screen centered on the back wall.

"It's certainly not a replacement for brick-and-mortar labs," Dubin-Thaler says. "But it's another layer, and I think a really important layer. Students can see scientists and be taught by scientists and think about what it would be like to study science in college and maybe even in grad school."

Beyond the onboard curriculum, Dubin-Thaler hopes to expand the BioBus project to be a networking resource for students. On his travels, Dubin-Thaler has been compiling lists both of students interested in science internships and of researchers who want to mentor high-schoolers. No matches have been made yet, but Dubin-Thaler had two high school students work with him last summer, one of whom helped design a an experiment performed by the students at Frances Perkins Academy.

Overall, Tunick was excited about the way her students responded to the material. "I watched them ask questions, I watched them be engaged when they ordinarily aren't," she says.

In January the Awesome Foundation—a Boston-based organization that awards a $1,000 grant each month for the pursuit of an awesome idea, which they define on their Web site as, "novel and nonobvious, evoking surprise and delight. …that perfectly reflects the essence of the medium, moment or method of creation"—opened a chapter in New York City, and awarded its first grant to Dubin-Thaler. He plans to use the money to build a laser tractor beam on board the BioBus, offering another technically sophisticated way for students to experiment with cell motion.

In the attempt to find new, cost-efficient ways to improve science education, the BioBus may offer a glimpse of the future. "The BioBus provides a platform for teacher training; it gives students the opportunity to envision themselves as scientists by practicing cutting-edge science; and it gives scientists an accessible and effective path for performing outreach and initiating mentorship relationships," Dubin-Thaler says. "It intrinsically gets students, teachers and scientists excited about doing science, and the BioBus breaks those stereotypes people have about the scientist as [some] old geezer in a sterile room laughing maniacally over his evil creations."