About Eric Kessler

I am a high school biology teacher at Blue Valley North High School where I have taught freshman Biology and Honors Biology, Field Biology, Zoology, and AP Biology for the past 15 years. I am sponsor of the Environmental Club and our molecular modeling S.M.A.R.T. Team program. I am also the current treasurer of the Kansas Herpetological Society. Although I like most things biological, I have specific interests in the natural history of KS endemics (the outdoors) and things molecular. I am a pretty avid reader, I enjoy maintaining my website, and taking photographs. I plan on having students blogging and creating podcasts by the end of the year.

TBT: Teaching Genetics in the 21st Century

Editor’s Note: Though not planned this way, let’s make it two in a row for Eric Kessler. He originally posted this in July 2012. With many of us starting to plan for the next school year, now is the perfect time for an article like Dr. Redfield’s. You may not agree with everything therein, but it is definitely thought-provoking. After reading the PLoS article, let us know what you think in the comments and we’ll get this conversation started. -AMI

Read this PLoS article

And the developing comments.

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TBT: Synthetic Biology (July 2010)

Editors note: This post on Synthetic Biology was originally published on the BioBlog 18 July 2010. While he at one point mentions that he doesn’t “pretend to be an expert” on SynBio, author Eric Kessler has gone on to do some amazing work with his students in the field. Somethings have changed in six years (here is a story by Ed Yong from March 2016), but please enjoy this look back into our archives. 


The 21st Century Prometheans?

A little over a year ago, Brad posted a link to a survey on Synthetic Biology.  Although it appears that little has fundamentally changed since then, this burgeoning field, along side nanotechnology, has become front page news, and will hopefully become a topic of conversation in your biology class in the near future.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Synthetic Biology but I thought a few resources may provide you with enough background knowledge to approach the topic with your students this year.  Maybe they could use this post itself as a springboard for discussion or more research.  The post is in three parts, each accompanied by some thought provoking quotes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein…

Early Years and Standford’s Drew Endy

In these links you will will find a reference to one of the first papers in the field, a few comic responses to the field, and links to two YouTube videos (originally TED Talks) of Drew Endy explaining the difference between Synthetic Biology and the more standard and familiar recombinant DNA and genetic engineering technologies.

“The world was to him a secret which he desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research to learn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they were unfolded to him, are among the earliest sensations he can remember . . . It was the secrets of heaven and earth that he desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied him, still his inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.”

  1. Synthetic Biology: Engineering Escherichia coli to see light (November 2005)
  2. Nature’s comic on Synthetic Biology (November 2005)
  3. The Story of Synthia – another comic look at synthetic biology
  4. Synthetic Biology Organization with a press link to numerous popular critiques of synthetic biology
  5. SEED’s Cribsheet on Synthetic Biology (July 2010)


(June 2007)


(December 2008)

Venter creates the News & President Obama’s Responds

“There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies? No: from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery.”


(May 2010)

  1. The President’s Emerging Technologies Interagency Policy Coordination Committee’s Inaugural Meeting (May 2010)
  2. NPR Story, Presidential Panel Scrutinizes Synthetic Biology (July 2010)

Resources for those interested in Doing some Synthetic Biology

The following resources are for entering the field of Synthetic Biology.  The first link will introduce you to an annual competition used to motivate undergraduate teams of students to design and engineer novel pathways in E. coli.  If you search around, I think that you’ll find that there has been a single high school team involved in the competition before.  Some of university sponsors are quite interested in developing a kit to introduce students to the methods synthetic biology.

  1. iGEM 2010
  2. Authentic Teaching and Learning through Synthetic Biology based the E. coli engineered to sense light
  3. The BioBricks Foundation
  4. Registry of Standard Biological Parts
  5. BioBrick Assembly Kit from New England BioLabs

“‘The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind.”

Biomes Activity by Chris Ollig

During our fantastic camping chair conversations at this springs kabt field trip several people shared some wonderful ideas for lessons they have developed or used in their classroom.  I had a few individuals inquire about an activity I developed to help students learn about the various biomes.  

As is usually the case, a winter collaboration with fellow bvn biology teachers helped spark an idea.  We were discussing ways to avoid the usual mundane exercise of teaching students “facts” about various biological thingamajigs.  I have struggled for a while with how much it pained me to teach students about how many inches of rain a particular biome received annually so that seemed like the best topic to start on. 

My general philosophy is that teaching students how to gather information about a topic is more beneficial than spoon feeding them the information.  Further, I feel that having students inquire about just one topic (i.e. rainforest biome) rather than every topic will allow them to better grasp the idea of what exactly the concept is.  That is certainly more valuable than knowing how much rainfall EACH biome receives annually etc.  Second, I would say that giving the students purpose in their learning and perhaps even stoking a little competition does wonders for building student engagement.  

That brings me to this lesson.  I attempted to develop a way to encourage students to investigate one particular biome, and what better motivation than their VERY SURVIVAL! Admittedly I have a guilty pleasure…Naked and Afraid.  So this activity plays with the idea that students are dropped off in a particular biome and asked to survive by researching various biotic and abiotic factors found in their environment.  The more thorough their investigation, the longer they survive. Granted, a bunch of naked high school students running around the rainforest is probably not something the district would condone, so I changed the name to…wait for it…Mostly Clothed But Still A Little Afraid.

This spring was my first attempt at this activity, and yes I did discover several aspects that could use some tweeking, but my overall impression was that the students genuinely loved it. They were excited to dig into their biome and see what they could come up with.  After the assignment was completed I averaged the “days survived” for each group and had a dramatic reveal of the winning groups.  Interestingly, the biomes I thought would be the easiest to survive scored the lowest.  I think that across the board, the dessert biome scored the highest.  Go figure.

Anyways, here is the full document.  Use what you like, modify for your tastes.  

Biome Survival Project STUDENT HANDOUT
Biome Survival Project TEACHER INFO

Chris Ollig, Blue Valley North High School

Recollections from the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge Field Trip

As one of the trip coordinators for this year’s field trip, I must say that even though I was a bit stressed when our journey began and not everyone decided to take advantage of the free van transportation, it didn’t take long for me to relax as I watched the participants striking up conversations with each other in the field.

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Our first stop was at the Headquarters of the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge where we met with Kim Martin, Federal Law Officer at the refuge.  She showed us a 12 minutes video introducing us to the history and growth of the national wildlife refuge system.  She then talked and answered questions about the Marais des Cygnes refuge and her duties in federal law enforcement.

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After our introduction, we check 15 small mammal traps that had been baited and set the afternoon before.  The traps were set in a recently burned restoration area, a non-burned restoration area, and a non-burned area that within a remnant tallgrass prairie.  We had no success in either of the restorations but captured a single hispid cotton rat and lone deer mouse in the prairie remnant.  While traversing the prairies the young naturalist in our party enjoyed netting the numerous great spangled fritillary butterflies we observed pollinating a stand of dogbane.

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From there we travel to another prairie restoration along Yardley Road to search for Mead’s Milkweed.  This federally endangered plant is known to exist naturally at three locations on the NWR property.  The plants we saw were individuals that had been planted into one of their restorations.  Participants were able to find a couple of plants that were in full bloom.

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From there we returned to Linn County Park for lunch and a short siesta.  When finished, we returned the NWR and headed to Stick Pond adjacent to the photoblind to check 4 turtle traps that had been baited and set the evening prior.  Three of the traps were hoop traps and one was a cage trap.  Each were baited with creamed corn and mackerel.  Interestingly enough, three of the traps had not a single turtle while one of the hoop traps contained 13 turtles of three species – 1 large snapping turtles, 1 painted turtle, and 12 large sliders (2 males and 10 females based on fore fingernail length).  It took us awhile to safely position the snapping turtle for removal from the trap and get a few pictures.  You’ll have to check out the KABT Facebook site for images of the turtles.  I had my hands full and didn’t want to get my camera wet.

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After our interactions with the chelonians, we traveled a wooded area surrounding an abandoned coal mining operation.  We were in search of the only stand of swamp white oak in the entire state of Kansas.  We read the informative email from MdCNWR Biologist, Tim Menard, which contained the following information –  “As you walk west from the state line parking lot, the swamp white will begin to appear before you get to the old service road, and definitely before you get to the flowing creek.  many of these trees are forked at the base.  Then you can see many more as you walk to the northwest.  The leaves look like chinkapin (which are just on the other side of the hill).  However, look for last year’s acorn caps with the long stem attached.”  We successfully found the trees.  At this stop we also witnessed a ringneck snake and the caterpillar of the pipe-vine swallowtail butterfly.  Chris Ollig from Blue Valley North High School introduced the group to dendrochronology and the appropriate use of the increment borer.

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Next, we traveled to Turkey Foot Pond, a man-made pond resulting from previous coal mining activities.  There we checked four additional turtle traps as well as surveyed for freshwater mussels known to occur at the site.  As the name implies, Turkey Foot Pond has three fingers.  On our descent to the western most finger, we encountered a lush stand of equisetum.  Two young snakes were observed – a plain-bellied water snake and a northern water snake – and a horsehair worm was discovered swimming in the pond along the shore.  We found a number of mussels the most abundant of which was the three ridge mussel.  The identities of the other mussels encountered awaits verification by mussel experts.  In the second finger we searched, we captured two sliders in one of four traps deployed.  Check out the aged slider that doesn’t look like a slider anymore in the images below.

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Finally, we travelled to the Marais des Cygnes River itself to search for the mussels beds that eluded Kelley Tuel and I on our previous trip to the refuge.  The group rallied their remaining reserves of energy to make the 1/2 mile walk into the site.  Along the way a number of gravid ribbon snakes were found hanging out in a warm ephemeral watered ditch.  Most of the kids and only two adults made there way into the river.  Not thinking, I swam downstream looking for mussels and found a few weathered shells and a young slider basking on a log.  Otherwise, the kids enjoyed this final swim one of the parents of the big muddy.

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On Sunday, those that were left travelled to the Smith Ranch newt pond.  We encountered a large plain-bellied water snake (check out the story on the KS Herpetology Facebook), a worm snake, and a ground skink.  None of us braved the muddy pond to seine for newts.

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I will be adding some links in the future, and subsequently will be creating individual posts for some of the information that we planned on sharing but didn’t seem the time to.

Enjoy!

 

 

KABT Field Trip Information and Draft Schedule

Bottomland Hardwood 950 x 348

Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge, May 30 – June 1

The link below contains the draft document for the KABT Field Trip this weekend including background, directions, maps, and a schedule of events for Friday-Sunday.  Please read it.  I will have final copies along with some instructional activities as handouts on the field trip.  The map to the KABT Campsite is accurate, and we will likely have some directional signs up in Linn County Park to help you along.  We still haven’t figured out a good restaurant to eat lunch at (there might not be one) so be prepared by bringing food for Saturday’s lunch for sure.  I am imagine we can find a place to eat dinner in La Cygnes, Pleasanton, or Louisburg.

KABT SPRING FIELD TRIP 2014_Draft_to_Share

I still have some editing of the background to do based on suggestions from the staff at the Marais des Cygnes NWR, and there may be some changes to the schedule. If you are coming down on Friday and want to help set traps, etc… please text me your name so that I can keep you informed if anything changes.  I’m at 816-804-7106.

I may upload a list of possible things to bring later but do be warned that you should be prepared for having your legs covered while walking around in the prairies and forests during the beginning of the day, etc… and then getting into the Marais des Cygnes River later. I will be carrying a backpack and wearing my swim trunks under my jeans.

It goes without saying that we will likely encounter some poison ivy and ticks during our journey.

If you have any questions about the field trip feel free to post a comment here, on the KABT Facebook, of feel free to email me.  Hope to see you all at the end of the week!

NSTA 2014: More Resources

Thanks to Michael Ralph getting things started.  I would love to have made it to the epigenetics/arabidopsis workshop that he discuss but there is only so much time in a day.  Here are a few of the highlights from my 1 1/2 days at the convention.

Citizen Science with Bats

batconservation  wildlifeacoustics

The world’s leading bat conversation organization, Bat Conservation International (http://batcon.org/) has teamed up with Wildlife Acoustics, a manufacturer of acoustics equipment for field researchers, to produce a product for educators called the Echo Meter Touch, which is a device that can sense ultrasonic wavelength and transfer that information via a user frienldy and free app available for the iPhone and iPad.  A promotional video will give you the details.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSwagOSSvL0

Written details on the product can be found here: http://www.wildlifeacoustics.com/education.  One Echo Meter Touch will set you back $523 and will include the Discover Bats Curriculum Guide produced in conjunction with Bat Conservation International.  The only draw back may be the double flipping your classroom so that you can meet your students in the field at dusk to collect some data.  If I get around to purchasing my own, I’ll let you know more of what I think.  If any of you plan to purchase let me know.  It would be a nice thing to test on our KABT Spring Field Trip.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Birds-of-Paradise Project

birdsofparadise

Every since I read David Quammen’s “Song of the Dodo” years ago, I have been interested in the Wallace’s independent discover of natural selection and his observations of the Birds-of-Paradise (a part of the larger story of Island Biogeography).  Well now the famed Ornithology Labs at Cornell have developed some curriculum.  I have not explored these activities but in the presentation they showed the work by two of their researchers in capturing video of all 39 species.  I can’t wait to have some time to check it out.

http://www.birdsofparadiseproject.org/ – This website contains information on the project to document the 39 Birds-of-Paradise

http://www.birdsleuth.org/paradise/ – This site contains the “lessons” that have been developed to teache about the scientific process, natural and sexual selection, and behavior and heritability.

 

BioBuilder Professional Development Workshop in KS

logo-biobuilder-educational-foundation
After a few years of integrating Synthetic Biology into our molecular course offering at CAPS, I am happy to announce that we will be offering a 3-Day BioBuilder Workshop at CAPS on July 8-10.  This three day professional development opportunity will prepare educators to bring biological engineering and synthetic biology into their classrooms and laboratories.  The workshop will include:

    • Lectures that connect the engineering/science/math and technology aspects of these fields.
    • Labs and classroom activities taught from the online www.BioBuilder.org resources.
    • Lunchtime discussions with members of the synthetic biology community.
    • Activities that address the nuts and bolts of running an iGEM team.

Attendees will receive lunch each day and 45 PDPs. Attendees must commit to implementing a BioBuilder activity in the 2014-2015 academic year and provide feedback on the effort.

Who should apply?

    • High school Biology teachers, especially those teaching introductory biology or those looking for new ways to teach the AP content or for compelling material to teach college-bound students after the AP exam is completed
    • College-level instructors looking for classroom and lab curricula to include in a biotechnology-style class
    • Science Club leaders, in particular anyone looking for ways to bring cutting edge content to students with a variety interests from math to biology to electronics.

How to apply?

    • The application is online: http://biobuilder.org/workshops/
    • 3 day workshop is $250/person (scholarships are available).
    • Registration fees include full tuition, lunch each day, and written materials.
    • A non-refundable registration/deposit fee of $50 is due upon application, reserving your place in a workshop. Balance is due one week in advance of the workshop.
    • Pre-registration is required for all participants, as space is limited.

What is Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic Biology is an emerging field that applies engineering and mathematical principles to the development of novel biological systems. These principles and technologies extend the teaching of molecular genetic techniques into real world, authentic applications.  Examples of synthetic systems include bacteria that smell like bananas, and light-sensitive bacteria that can serve as pixels in a photograph. These teachable systems are included in
the curriculum at Biobuilder.org.

Why teach Synthetic Biology?

Synthetic biology provides teachers and students an engineering context to learn molecular biology, genetic engineering and microbiology methods. This approach asks students to learn while designing, or testing designs of, engineered biological systems. In addition, this approach provides science teachers with a means of exploring numerous state and national technology standards that are hard to address in most science classes.

Workshop Instructors

Kevin McCormick is a science teacher at Summit Technology Academy in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. He teaches the Project Lead The Way capstone courses in the Biomedical Sciences, Medical Interventions and Biomedical Innovations. He participated in a week long BioBuilder workshop held at MIT in the summer of 2013.

Dr. Dave Westenberg is a microbiologist who has taught in the Department of Biological Sciences at Missouri University of Science and Technology for the past 17 years. He is co-advisor for the Missouri S&T iGEM team and teaches a course in Biological Experimental Design and Innovation. He also chairs the American Society for Microbiology Committee on K-12 Outreach.

Eric Kessler is completing his 22nd year as a biology instructor. He currently directs the Bioscience Program in the Blue Valley School
District’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS). He has received grants and awards that include the Milken Award, Kansas
Outstanding Biology Teacher, Kansas Wildlife Educator of the Year, and NSTA Ron Mardigian Bio-Rad Biotechnology Explorer Award. He participated in a week long BioBuilder workshop held at Purdue in summer of 2012, and has facilitated the high school iGEM program in 2012 and 2013.

Pictoral Review of the KABT Spring Field Trip

Marshall County, KS 2012

As you are about to see, Noah Busch organized quite a series of events for us to experience during this year’s field trip, which included:

  • Camping out in Stella’s Meadow at Alcove Springs
  • Teaching us how to construct and use common materials in capturing the tracks of  small mammals
  • Showing us the new downtown exhibit on Geologic Time in the Glaciated Region in Blue Rapids, and famous Black Squirrels of Marysville
  • Checking turtle traps along Spring Creek, and being witnessing to a rare herpetological event (see the Kansas Herpetology Facebook for details)
  • Spending time at his family’s organic farm where we were treated to organic hot dogs and such, learned about organic farming from Noah’s mother Nancy Vogelsberg-Busch, took a bird watching tour with Dr. John Quinn from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and stopped to eat some berries, look for some russian thistle weevils, and do a bit of bee handling…

Thanks again, Noah!


By the way, it looks like someone started a KABT Facebook Page.  Like it and share your links, etc…  I think we need to start a Facebook Group though so that I can post images to an ablum.  It appears that I can only upload a single image to a page.