THE JOURNEY OF AN IDEA: KIDS' DAY
"BETTER" IS ALWAYS POSSIBLE ... IF RARELY EASY
What began as an average "Take Your Child to Work" day is now an interactive, highly innovative science "school," involving more than 500 students aged 5-18 years and more than 150 Regeneron employee volunteers.
Evolving the Expected
In 1992, as with many corporations, Regeneron participated in "Take Your Daughter to Work" day upon its initial launch. While 15-20 children of different ages came in, toured the space and met some of the company’s scientists, there was growing interest to include both genders and to really light a fire in the minds of "our future scientists."
This idea grew into Kids’ Day.
In August 2004, the first Regeneron Kids' Day attracted 56 children from 3rd to 12th grade. The team designed a three-tier program: one track for elementary school children, one for middle school children and one for high school children.
The overall focus was to explain what biotech means by bringing to life its real-world application for the participating children. Activities included making silly putty or liquid nitrogen ice cream for elementary and middle schoolers, and protein science or digital graphic arts for high schoolers.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS
Despite the success, coordinating Kids' Day required an incredible amount of work, and, as a result, the program was not a consistent annual event.
In 2010 Dr. Susan Croll, Neuroscience and Postdoctoral Program Director and a Regeneron employee since 1992, decided to volunteer her time to help with the event. Susan began planning in earnest in June, and spent much of July fleshing out a three-year framework that rotated themes so children would always have a different experience, and the planning burden for Regeneron employees could be alleviated. She decided to host the event on Columbus Day, in homage to the joy of discovery, and also to avoid interference with a school day.
"WE REALLY WANT TO CAPTURE THEIR ATTENTION AND THEIR ENTHUSIASM AND INSPIRE PASSION ABOUT SCIENCE AND DISCOVERY AND EXPERIMENTATION."
— LORI MORTON, PHD, VICE PRESIDENT, RESEARCH
Her goal was simple: to drive understanding of our own human biology and the relevance of medicines in helping people be healthy.
The program included:
- Primary school children — anatomy and physiology
- Elementary school children — chemistry and biochemistry
- Middle school children — genetics
- High school children — discovery through hypothesis and experimentation
"By early August, I realized I had created four entirely separate programs that were going to be hard for me to monitor by myself!" said Susan.
From the beginning, Kids' Day has been the product of collaboration across employees, including Corporate Communications and Citizenship, Facilities, Environmental Health and Safety and employee-volunteer division coordinators who were tasked with driving the programming and overseeing implementation for each age group.
The team collaborated to build on Susan's initial concept. "We had the base ideas, but we had to figure out exactly what we were going to do with these kids, what was involved (like materials or space needs), and who else within the organization we needed to involve in order to make it happen, not to mention volunteers to help run the activities and chaperone the children around," said Carla Castanaro, Lead R&D Specialist, and middle school division coordinator.
At the center, the team focused on ensuring that the day was fun, by incorporating fan favorites like an ice cream truck for an afternoon snack and appealing to children's love of hands-on learning. Case in point: middle schoolers learned how to extract DNA by mashing up strawberries in a bag while outfitted in professional lab glasses and gloves.
"MY FIRST YEAR, WE MADE ICE CREAM, AND IT ALMOST HAD THE SAME CONSISTENCY AS BREYERS. WHEN YOU'RE A 4TH GRADER, THAT'S THE COOLEST THING EVER. I DIDN'T KNOW I COULD ACTUALLY MAKE IT."
— ZARAYAH WILLIAMS, 15
In 2010, 96 children participated in Regeneron Kids' Day. "It was trial by fire," said Carla Castanaro. "We ran around like crazy people, but it was a lot of fun."
Some activities worked as planned and others didn't. There also were logistical and practical learnings – like needing more volunteers to shepherd children from one activity to another, and incorporating a snack for hungry middle school children.
Within the three-year framework of the curriculum, the team is continually taking these learnings and re-assessing. "We commit to ourselves to boot the bottom one or two activities and replace them, so every year, by design, the program is getting better and better," said Susan.
Lori Morton, Ph.D., Vice President, Research, was a middle school volunteer in 2010, but as her oldest daughter entered Kindergarten in 2011, she raised her hand to help lead the primary school program and continues to serve in this role today.
"I felt we could do a better job of really capturing their attention and imagination throughout the day," she said. Ideas are informally vetted by members of the steering committee — either by testing activities with their own children, visiting a school or through community outreach events. Lori, for example, tested the primary group activity on digestion and nutrition in 2015, "Making Poop," which was a resounding success with the children. "They just lost their minds — totally lost them," Lori commented.
Over the years, the program has included experiential additions, such as the BioBus, an immersive, hands-on laboratory in a school bus, and Museum Without Walls, which conducts experiments like unraveling the mysteries of DNA. The curriculum also has grown to include activities that are focused on journalism in science, the business behind science or an art contest for participating children to showcase what science means to them through art. The program diversity showcases the various ways that science impacts the world, and it helps attract and engage children of varying interests.
"SCIENCE IS REALLY EXTENDED IN SO MANY WAYS INTO POLITICS AND POLICY AND HOW YOUR TOWN MAKES DECISIONS ABOUT THINGS AND WHAT LANDSCAPER YOU'RE GOING TO HIRE AND HOW YOU CHOOSE TO FEED YOUR KIDS. IT'S SO CRITICAL. "
— LORI MORTON, PHD, VICE PRESIDENT, RESEARCH
A LASTING IMPACT
The day after Kids' Day, emails from parents flood in to the organizers, relaying how a son talked about his experience all the way home and refused to go to bed without wearing his Kids' Day backpack, or how a daughter collapsed into bed because she was so utterly exhausted.
Zarayah Williams, 15 and daughter of Ebony Coates, Senior Manager, Clinical Sciences, noted, "Kids' Day gives me an opportunity to get an inside look at some of what my mom and her co-workers do every day. It's really interesting to see all of the different groups and how they all work together to ultimately bring medicines to people. I like that we are able to get actual hands-on experience and work through some experiments where we learn by trial and error about what it takes to make an impact."
Susan recalls a story shared by a colleague, whose 10-year-old daughter participated in Kids' Day. "She relayed that she was home and made a casual observation about one of her plants growing once she moved it into the sun. Her daughter turned to her and said, ‘Mom, I hope you replicated that experiment before drawing that conclusion.' To me, that means that these kids are learning how to be good, rigorous scientists, and that's staying with them."
The experience also showcases the passion, collaboration and energy that Regeneron employees bring to work every day. Katy Zhu, 16, daughter of Research Specialist Amy Fan, said, "All I knew about my mom's job was that she worked in a lab doing experiments. I pictured her with other scientists, walking around in lab coats in what looks like a factory, sitting at a desk and doing experiments.
"After participating in Kids' Day, I realized that it's not just science and work all day. Regeneron is a beautiful place, the equipment is so high tech and innovative and the people are so nice. Work is fun and you can enjoy and relax while doing your job."
Lori agrees. "We are so passionate about what we do, and we care so much about the quality of our science and our rigor in working through ideas; we bring that to planning Kids' Day, but we also are inspired again as we watch the kids on campus just get so lit up with excitement about their project — it's a real charge of motivation for all of us here. To think, ‘That's right, kids, science IS awesome! I'm so lucky I get to do it for a job.'"
FROM SCIENCE TO MEDICINE: THE NEXT GENERATION
"Our dream when we started Regeneron was to build a company where the scientists would be the heroes,” stated Len Schleifer, MD, PhD, Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer, Regeneron. “We want scientists to be the next generation's heroes and to develop a pipeline of talent, starting at a young age."
At the Tarrytown campus alone, Regeneron Kids' Day involves 500+ students, requires at least 150 employee volunteers and costs about $30,000 for food and supplies. Inspired by the program's success, the planning team has grand visions for what may come next — from creating more creative experiments for all ages, to systematically hosting the program across all sites, to creating science kits as a way for employees to take the curriculum more formally out into the community.
Whatever form the program evolves into, Susan is clear on her ultimate goal for the children who participate. “I hope that they've learned about teamwork, and leave feeling empowered to ask a question and work to get an answer. I think that having the power to solve a problem and possessing the necessary tools to do that gives children confidence. That is one of the number one take-aways I hope the children have, because that is what leads to progress."