Professor works to inspire school children from his hometown

Joseph Freeman

Joseph Freeman

BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 28, 2008 – Joseph Freeman, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech – Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences and director of the Musculoskeletal Tissue Regeneration Laboratory, teaches graduate students in Fundamentals of Tissue Function Structure and Replacement. He also has a different set of students, also hungry for knowledge of science, hundreds of miles away from Blacksburg, Va., that aren’t quite ready for college. Yet.

In his native Newark, N.J., Freeman has been working with Diana Freeman, his mother and a science teacher at Alexander Street Elementary School, to provide school children in the third through eighth grades with DVDs showing the work he is doing in Blacksburg. The idea to share Freeman’s in-lab work at Virginia Tech with students of inner-city Newark was sparked in 2006 after she, invited her visiting son to participate in Career Day at Alexander Street.

Despite the short notice, Freeman arrived the next day, wearing a Superman T-shirt and spoke to her third through fifth graders about his career in scientific research. He used a classroom skeleton to show students the various bones on the body, and discussed knee replacements and knee ligament surgeries and replacements. He also drew complicated nerve cell structures on the classroom chalkboard to show students why doctors cannot rebuild spinal cords or so many of the body’s complicated tissues that allow paraplegics to walk, the mother says.

Diana Freeman says her son made an instant connection with her students with his wardrobe that day. “Everyone came in their suits and ties, and Joseph came in his jeans and a Superman T-shirt,” she says. “And the children, just seeing his height, went ‘Oooh.’ They thought he was a basketball player. And he told them he was a scientist and biomedical engineer.”

She said he was able to break down his lesson into chunks of information easily relatable to children but without talking down to them. “You can know everything about a subject, but if you can’t break information down so people can understand it, then you aren’t a good teacher.”

Freeman says he was thrilled that students became involved in the lesson, asking question after question. From that class, Freeman and his mother decided to start making DVDs of lab-based lessons that he films so she can show in class to her students. The DVDs, according to Freeman, are under 10 minutes and have or will include work he is using in the labs – electrospinning, how nanofibers are made, mircospheres, and hydrogels.

So far two DVDs have been completed and Freeman has ideas for more. The cost is cheap: Freeman uses a digital recorder from home, with graduate students demonstrating the lesson after he gives a brief introduction. He adds in music – positive-themed hip hop mostly, and edits the production on his home computer.

In early 2009, Freeman says he also plans to work Internet conferencing into the classroom lessons, in addition to the DVDs. Details have yet to be worked out, but Freeman says he hopes to interact in real time with the Newark school students in order to cultivate question-and-answer sessions. With the DVD format, on-the-spot Q-and-A’s are not possible. Diana Freeman says her students ask if her son will revisit class or when the next DVD lesson will arrive. “It’s been a real blessing,” she says.

“The children loved that he wore the Superman T-shirt,” she says. “It made them feel like he was one of them.” She says Freeman’s classroom lesson and subsequent DVD lessons open a new avenue for students in her class who might not think of careers outside of what is known to them locally such as a doctor, lawyer, or firefighter. “Our kids need options to look at, not the same old same old.” The mother says her son may inspire children to follow in his path. Freeman has the same hope: “If they can see someone who looks like them, who grew up in the neighborhood they did, doing what I’m doing, then maybe they’ll think they can do it too,” he says.

School children in Newark, which is just southwest of New York, face great obstacles. Per capita, it is one of the 50 poorest cities in the nation. The city has a 26 percent poverty rate and a high drop out rate among teenagers.

And Freeman isn’t stopping with the Internet conferencing classes. He has applied to the National Science Foundation for funding to bring Newark high school science students to the Virginia Tech campus so they can get hands-on real-life experience inside the lab. He has three grant proposals out now and says he hopes to hear an answer by December. His ultimate goal: “Get students excited about science and engineering, and, hopefully Virginia Tech.”

Freeman earned his bachelor of science in chemical engineering from Princeton University, and his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Rutgers University and The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. His Virginia Tech research focuses on the development of new biomaterials for tissue engineering and the construction of novel, functional scaffolds for the repair of musculoskeletal tissues. He is a winner of the 2008 Early Career Translational Research Award in Biomedical Engineering from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, a Ford Foundation Fellow, a National Institute of Health Training Program Fellow, a Virginia Tech ABD Fellow, and a Johnson & Johnson Graduate Fellow.