Get Out and Get Data…

In September of last year, the University of Kansas Biological Field Station graciously opened its facilities to the environmental science students of Basehor-Linwood High School. Scott Campbell, associate director of outreach and public services for Kansas Biological Survey, received the 20 students at the Armitage Center. Scott, a true educator, engaged the students in a discussion about the broad mission of the field station. Students curiously asked many questions about the current research that was being conducted.

Students received some general guidelines about how to treat the animals ethically. Soon students began a fierce competition to catch the most frogs. In the classroom a discussion about population surveys would have been met with little excitement. At the side of the pond, with frogs leaping through the cool September grass, there was not a student in twenty who thought this was a meaningless exercise. The excitement was palpable.

Once the frogs were collected , students retired to the Armitage Center for sack lunches. The frogs were cooled in a large refrigerator to make them easier to work with. Students had practiced weighing and measuring frogs in the classroom. Now these skills were put to work- there were 134 frogs to weigh, measure, and score for color patterns.

This scene was punctuated by moments of chaos when a frog or two would make a dive to get out of the grips of the high school students. After all the data was collected students returned to the pond to release the frogs. On the way, Mr. Daniel Smalley, their teacher, caught a small black snake.


The snake made its way to Mr. Stan Roth who is an adjunct research assistant and educator for the Kansas Biological Survey. Stan identified the species and engaged the students in a conversation about the natural history of the snake. Many students touched a snake for the first time.

Finally, students were able to seine in the pond. They had a good harvest of small fish and invertebrates.

Before the students returned to class they visited the Rockefeller Prairie and walked the trails. Students collected 10 flowering heads of goldenrod. The flowering heads were quickly covered in gallon ziplock bags and sealed shut. Inside all the insect species that were foraging or hunting on the flower heads were sealed too.

Back at school the students compiled the data into a Google spreadsheet. This data was then analyzed and graphed by hand. Thus, students had the chance to analyze data about a population that they had collected. Mr. Smalley then entered the information into Plotly an online graphing platform. The computer allowed the students to more easily analyze the distribution variables like snout to vent length and weight.

The final graph that students examined compared the length of frogs to their weight. Mr. Smalley explained that we should expect to see a strong connection between these two variables. Further, he explained, that this was an example of a mathematical model that could be used to predict and explain the population. Who knew there could be so much math in environmental science?

After the frog data was analyzed students took out ten bags of Goldenrod. The bags had been frozen. Students separated out the insects from the Goldenrod. They had to identify the insect species. Thankfully, Mr. Smalley has had a lifelong obsession with collecting bugs so with his help and a few field guides students quickly were able to determine the species they were looking at. Mr. Smalley then helped the students put together a food web based on these species. The bugs could then be categorized by their tropic level . Students collected the bugs of similar trophic levels together. This included 14 jumping spiders that served as top predators! Each level was weighed together. The students turned this into a large bulletin board that was displayed in the hallway. Mr. Smalley explained that this too was a model that showed where the biomass (a proxy for energy) was located in this micro community. Students really took to the project and decided that It would be good to include the actual organisms. Thus, all 14 spiders, herbivorous insects, and Goldenrod flower heads found their way on the bulletin board.

Experiences like this empower our youth to see themselves as shareholders of knowledge rather than passive vessels who blithely learn facts about things like ecosystems only to recite them back on tests.

Sternberg Museum Summer Science Camps

Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum is providing another year of high-quality field experiences for students. They are offering courses for elementary, middle, and high school students, and even have international trips available.

The full catalog is available here. If you need more information, or are interested in one of the available scholarships, contact education director David Levering using the information below.

Greetings from the Sternberg Museum of Natural History! We are excited to offer our 2017 Summer Science Camps and Programs designed to immerse students in the wonders of Earth and life science!
The Sternberg Museum education and science staff presents experience-driven lessons and activities that get students directly involved in the process of science. We emphasize building knowledge, skills and the mental tools to deal with information and questions in a scientific manner.
Outdoor exploration is at the heart of our science camps and programs. Getting students outside interacting with nature, each other and instructors helps to anchor our lessons with powerful firsthand experiences. We look forward to sharing the wonder of science and exploration with you this summer!
David Levering
Education Director

In My Classroom: Investigating Mosquito-Borne Diseases

Welcome to the KABT blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.

The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. However, there are new teachers that may be hearing things for the first time and veterans that benefit from reminders. So let’s share things, new and old alike. When you’re tagged you have two weeks to post the next entry. Your established staple of a lab or idea might be just what someone needs. So be brief, be timely and share it out! Here we go:

I’ve been meaning to post about this project for a while now. This was our first major research project for my Biology 1 students this year. With Zika in the news all summer, I wanted to do a project incorporating mosquitos.

My vision for the project was to have students collect mosquito eggs, hatch them, then raise them in observation chambers subjected to different experimental variables. At the end, students would use their data to draw conclusions about mosquito behavior and life cycles. Students would collect data on the number of days until adults emerged, how temperature affected emergence rates, whether males or females emerge faster, and the percent of eggs that would make it to adulthood. Then students would use this information to develop a plan to slow the spread of mosquito-borne disease.

I stress that this was my vision because this experiment didn’t work so well in reality. My students made oviposition traps using Solo cups, following the method outlined here:, which is a wonderful citizen science project (talk to Noah Busch for more information!). Some groups decided to make more complicated traps. We placed the traps around campus, testing different types of sites, but we collected very few eggs! I was surprised by this result, but I found an aquaculture company to purchase mosquito larvae (Sachs Systems Aquaculture:

Spray-painting our egg traps black.

Spray-painting our egg traps black.

After this initial hiccup, we had enough larvae to carry out the experiments in the observation chambers. I followed the chamber design from HHMI ( Some groups studied the effects of various temperatures, some studied the pH of the water, some wanted to look at the effects of light, among other things. We couldn’t afford as many larvae as I wanted, but we made things work by combining classroom data for students to analyze.

Mosquito observation chamber.

Mosquito observation chamber.

Once all of the data was collected, my students made their conclusions about mosquito control methods. They presented their findings and ideas using posters. We had a poster walk, and students were encouraged to share feedback with each other.

Successful emergence of adults!

Successful emergence of adults!

TBT: Miniposters

Editor’s Note: So far this semester, the most popular single post on the BioBlog is this September 2013 peer-review piece from our blogfather, Brad Williamson. Also this is a reposting of a reposting. Blogception!  Enjoy this, and if you use mini-posters in your classes, share your experience with us in the comments!

This is a reposting of a post that first appeared on the NABT BioBlog:

Miniposter, Jai Hoyer

Background and Rationale:

Almost 20 years ago, I was fortunate to be invited to my first Bioquest Workshop at Beloit College. Maura Flannery covered the Bioquest experience in several her columns in the American Biology Teacher. These workshops challenge and inspire you as you work with a number of like-minded biology educators working on the edge of new developments. What really caught me off guard was the intensity of the learning experience. Before the end of the first full day, each working group had to produce a scientific poster presentation. This was my first, personal experience with building a poster so I’m glad that I don’t really have a record of it. I talked to John Jungck about the poster requirements—he told me that the students in his labs prepare a poster for each laboratory–rather than a lab-write up and they have to defend/present them in poster sessions. I immediately saw that a poster would help me evaluate my student’s lab experience while provide a bit of authenticity to my students doing science. That fall I had my students do a poster session that was displayed in the science hall. It was a big success with one exception. For my high school class, the experience was a bit too intense and too time consuming. It turned out that we could only work in one big poster session that year. One of the little bits of clarity of thought that comes from teaching for decades instead of years is the realization that students need to practice, practice, practice—doing anything just once is not enough. I thought about abandoning the poster session since it was too time consuming. However, I witness great learning by all levels of students with this tool. I didn’t want to abandon it. With this thought rolling around in my mind, I was primed as I visited one of my wife, Carol’s, teacher workshops. She’s a science teacher, too. In this workshop she was presenting an idea to help elementary teachers develop science fair project—a mini-science fair poster. This idea involved the used of a trifolded piece of 11″ x 17″ paper. The teachers were inputting their “required” science fair heading with post-it notes. Revision was a breeze. The teachers learned the importance of brevity with completion. They added graphs and images by gluing their graph to a small post-it. It was all so tidy, so elegant, so inviting, I probably stared a little long, struck dumb by the simplicity of the mini-poster. Once I came to my senses I realized that the mini-poster was my answer–a way to incorporate authentic peer review, formative assessment in my science classes. My high school classes could be like John’s college classes.

Making Miniposters

Over the years, mini-posters have evolved into the following. We take two, colored (for aesthetics file folders, trim off the tabs and glue them so that one panel from each overlap—leaving a trifold, mini-poster framework. Each student gets one of these. For these posters we go ahead and permanently glue on miniposter-headers that include prompts to remind the students what should be included in each section. Later, they can design their own posters from scratch. The image at the top of the page and the ones following will give you an idea. By using post-it notes the posters can easily be revised and we also reuse the poster template several times over the year. Don’t feel that you have to follow this design–feel free to innovate.

Implementing Mini-posters:

Defending the Miniposter–Presentation

Defending the miniposter:
For the first mini-poster experience, I give my students as much as a class period to work up a poster after completing an original research investigation. (We do quite a few of these early in the school year with others periodically throughout the rest of the year). Sometimes poster work is by groups and sometimes by individuals. Once the posters are ready, the class has a mini-poster session. The class is divided up in half or in groups. Half the class (or a fraction) then stays with their posters to defend and explain them while the other half play the part of the critical audience. To guide the critic, I provide each “evaluator” with a one page RUBRIC and require them to score the poster after a short presentation. I restrict the “presentation” to about 5 minutes and make sure that there is an audience for every poster. We then rotate around the room through a couple of rounds before switching places. The poster presenters become the critical audience and the evaluators become presenters. We then repeat the process. By the end of the hour every poster has been peer-reviewed and scored with a rubric–formative assessment at its best. The atmosphere is really jumping with the students generally enjoying presenting their original work to their peers. The feedback is impressive. At this point I step in and point out that I will be evaluating their posters for a grade (summative assessment) but they have until tomorrow (or next week) to revise their posters based on peer review—oh, and I’ll use the same rubric. The process works very well for me and my students and my guess is that it will for yours as well. You’ll naturally have to tweak it a bit—please do. If you find mini-posters work for you, come back here and leave a comment.

The images are from our UKanTeach Research Methods course first assignment—a weekend research investigation. Thanks to the Research Methods course for the images.

Another Sample Miniposter: Artificial Selction of Trichomes in Fastplants

Here’s a file that illustrates what a Sample-miniposter might look like constructed in MS Word.

Links to websites for advice on making scientific posters:

TBT: Spinach Chloroplasts

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2014 by our resident tinker, Michael Ralph. I think he was successful in staining chloroplasts, how about you?

I was pondering how to get a good look at plant cells with low cost, and I thought about Brad’s work with onion root tips in visualizing mitotic cells. Check out his original post here. The thought occurred to me that the fixative should dissolve inter-cellular connections in leaf tissue the same as root tissue, so I gave a section of grocery store spinach tissue the same 6 minute warm fixative bath. The tissue flattened nicely (more or less), but I couldn’t see much in the way of cell definition. Sticking with the theme, I grabbed the aceto-orcein stain because it was already handy. Here’s what I saw:

Spinach Cells - Aceto-orcein stain

Spinach Cells – Aceto-orcein stain

The remarkable definition in the organelle structure was surprising. Aceto-orcein binds DNA, so what would produce such well-defined structures that contain DNA. How about chloroplasts?

Plagiomnium ellipticum cells with visible chloroplasts.

Plagiomnium ellipticum cells with visible chloroplasts.

Let me know in the comments section:  chloroplasts or not? Alternative explanations?

TBT: Fastplant Growing Tips

Editor’s Note: So, Brad Williamson is a pretty big influence on science educators here in Kansas and across the country. Here is a post he originally put on the BioBlog in August 2013. Fastplants are a good way to teach genetics, botany, evolution, ecology… maybe it would be easier to say they are a very robust model organism. 🙂   Enjoy, and let us know if you plan on using Fastplants this school year!

Since many AP Biology teachers are trying to grow Fastplants for the first time, I thought I’d do a few blog posts that follow a generation of Fastplants in my lab.  When I was in the high school classroom I always had a surplus of seed stock available because I was always growing the plants.  Now,  I just grow them occassionally because I think it is fun and also to provide starter seed stock for the new biology teachers that graduate from our UKanTeach program.  Back in July I was fortunate to travel up to the University of Wisconsin for another Fastplant workshop.  Paul and Hedi had Fastplants growing in a number of different types of containers

but I was particularly interested in the deli/discovery cup growing systems because they are very close the the technique I used to use in my classes back when film canisters were available.

The water reservoir (the deli container) can be used to also deliver soluble fertilizer so there is minimal care needed.  These containers are a bit small for weekends so I chose to use 16 oz. containers.

I returned from Wisconsin with some new ideas to try out as well as some seed.  Note that I brought the seed back stuck in tape.  We used the tape to pick the seed up and folded it back over itself to seal the seed in after making a couple of folded over tabs on the end.

You’ll find a description of this technique in several of the resources on the Fastplant website:

In the mean time one of my former students asked me about growing Fastplants so I decided to go out and get some more current cost estimates for supplies.  Assuming you have a light source but otherwise are starting from scratch here is what I found.

Soluble fertilizer from a local garden store:  20-20-20 with micronutrients

Artificial seed starter mix soil:

or a larger bag:

Deli Growing containers from Party America or Party City:

along with lids:

The portion cups from Party America cost about $3.50 per 100 1.25 oz. cups.  I already had quite a bit of yellow braided nylon mason twine from Home Depot so I don’t have a cost for that.  The neat thing about this system is that the individual cups can be moved about and that module based system is pretty easy to manage in a classroom.  I also purchased a can of Flat Black Spray Paint (one coat) that I used to paint the deli containers and lids to hopefully reduce algae growth in the water reservoirs.

I marked and cut 1 and 3/8 inch diameter holes in the lids to hold the cups.  I purchased a 1 and 3/8 inch spade bit to do this for about $5.  The holes are cut very carefully and slowly by running the drill backwards or counterclockwise.  In that way the bit just kind of scratches its way through the thin plastic of the lid.  Going in the forward or clockwise direction will likely lead to different levels of disaster—the bit is not designed to cut into such thin material in the forward direction.  If you drill that way you’ll just tear up the lid and likely not produce any holes that will work.

Marking the hole locations with a paper template.

Carefully drilling in reverse to cut the holes:

I added 250 ml of dilute fertilizer solution to each deli system.  I mixed the 1 measure (a full bottle cap from a 20 oz. soda bottle) fertilizer in 1 liter of water and then diluted that stock solution 1 part stock solution to 7 parts water.   I also drilled 1/8 inch holes in the bottom of the 1.25 oz. portion cups, added a 6 inch length of twine to serve as a wick, added moist soil mix to the cups to get ready to plant.

You can see the bluish fertilizer in the systems to the left and the wicks extending out of the cups on the right.  I moisten the soil so that I can work with it in a gallon plastic bag by squeezing water into it.  You can see the bag at the top of the tray.  Before I place a cup of soil into one of the systems I first make sure that the wicking system is working.  To do that I gently poured water from the pitcher in one of the cups until water was dripping from the wick.  This ensures that the soil is moist as well.  Once the water was dripping from the wick I transferred the cup to one of the growing systems.

I then planted 4-6 seeds in each cup (I will trim this back to only two plants in each cup in about a week).  The seeds were simply dropped onto the surface of the moist soil.  They are not “planted” beneath the surface.

At this point I added a little bit of horticultural vermiculite to the surface of each cup.  I got this tip from Paul W.   You could sprinkle a little bit of soil at this point but vermiculite helps the germinating plant to escape its seed coat.  I did not include the vermiculite in the costs above but I imagine it is around $8 for a small bag that will last for years of classroom plantings.

The systems then went under the lights.  Notice how close I have positioned the lights for now.

Day 0.

Day 1:  No apparent change:

Day 2:  We have germination

Day 3:  Most of the plants have germinated.  The cotyledons are expanding.

I’ll continue to report on this round of growing Fastplants.


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.”

In My Classroom #8 – Get At the Engineering

Welcome to the KABT blog segment, “In My Classroom”. This is a segment that will post about every two weeks from a different member. In 250 words or less, share one thing that you are currently doing in your classroom. That’s it.


The idea is that we all do cool stuff in our rooms and to some people there have been cool things so long that it feels like they are old news. However, there are new teachers that may be hearing things for the first time and veterans that benefit from reminders. So let’s share things, new and old alike. When you’re tagged you have two weeks to post the next entry. Your established staple of a lab or idea might be just what someone needs. So be brief, be timely and share it out! Here we go:


My student teacher and I made a decision to try to do a better job of addressing the engineering aspects of the NGSS expectations this year. I wanted to take a new look at the end of my Scientific Method unit to insert some engineering considerations. Vivian Choong had the idea to discuss water quality and use the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio as a context for a PBL.


It's in the standards, seriously.

It’s in the standards, seriously.


We decided to retool my blackworm lab to use them as bioindicators of water quality and take measurements of the worms’ homeostasis before and after different remediation attempts on some “polluted” water. Students designed ecological water filters (soil, sawdust… that kind of thing, not chemical filtration) and considered the economic costs and ecological benefits of their interventions.

We thought the students would measure blackworm pulse rate or other behavior indicators, but they gravitated much more to measurements of water turbidity and coloration. It’s super cool and they’re really engaged with the topical nature of the problem. This is a keeper that I hope to formalize after some debrief and further revision.

Here is our anchor video for the activity. Don’t ask me for submission tiers, because we’re not there yet!

IMG_20150902_090823 IMG_20150902_090839

That’s it for me. Tag Andrew Davis, you’re it.



Cat Genetics Mini Unit

This year I have tried a mini project-based unit that uses cats to teach genetics. I got the idea for this and some resources from an article written by Alan Christensen, a professor at the University of Nebraska. I started out by running through my normal unit on genetics to serve as a background on genetics vocabulary as well as skills to do Punnett Squares. Next, I had them go into the specifics of cat genetics. Cat genetics are well known due to years of artificial selection. Also, more recently their genome was sequenced and many of the genes that determine hair patterning has been investigated.  This entire mini unit was focused on the genetics of cats coat colors.

Day 1.

Students were introduced to cats and their genome. I went through a prezi to cover all eighteen autosomes of the cats and highlighted the specific loci where the genes that determined their coat color were located. I covered these observable genes and discussed their forms of inheritance. Then we talked about the Orange gene on the X chromosome. They then were given the chance to look at several cats from a local human shelter and score them for different genes.

Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits

Student Scoring A cat from a local shelter for its genetic traits

At the end of class, they were given a chance to look up a specific gene from the NCBI genome of cats and try to determine what these genes does for the cell. (I would like to enrich this part of the unit but I don’t know how.) Their homework was to take a photo of their cat and bring it to school the next day on their phone or in an email.

Day 2. Students diagramed their cat based on a photo and posted this along with an analysis of the cat’s genome all around my room.

Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.

Student using a photo from their phone to diagram a cat. In the future these could be posted to a blog and other students could contribute to the genotyping of each cat.


With a simple “cat scan” around the room I began to see some cool trends. For instance, that the dominant White gene was rare in our local population. This turned into a good discussion about why the dominant gene didn’t “dominant” all other genes. posting cats

After all of our gene pool was posted, I was able to use some manipulatives from my time judging of protein modeling to show how the mutations from different genes can cause changes in color. It was very helpful to have a three dimensional model of a “receptor” protein. I began to ask the question about how one gene such as white or orange could cause a change in color.

I'm trying to make Lin Andrews proud her by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!

I’m trying to make Lin Andrews proud here by using some models. I attached them to my board with some magnets. It was so cool looking!

I used an explanation from Hopi Hoekstra from the University of Harvard about how fur color can cause a change in color. If the shape of the receptor protein is altered then the function of that protein will change, and in-turn its phenotype will change. Finally, the students read an article about Kermodism in black bears from British Columbia and answered questions about this article.  Here is a copy of the article for you to print (Spirit Bear). Kermodism is caused by the same Melanocortin 1 Receptor that I diagramed on the board.


The students drew a picture of their ideal “purrfect” cat. It had to have realistic traits and it couldn’t be hairless or all white. Students were able to take their “purrfect” cat diagrams and set up a breeding program to select from other student’s cats. They imagined that every time two cats bred they would produce eight kittens. I realized that some students were intentionally picking easier cats to breed for. So, I created several imaginary clients who wanted very specific traits for their cats. Each cat that they determined a breeding program for was an additional chocolate bar. Since all of the diagrams were in the classroom I could not ask the student’s to do any homework. In the future it would be neat to take all the pictures and post them to a blog so students could do homework as well as argue over the genes that different cats have.

Day 4.

We then concluded the unit with a section on natural selection with a video by HHMI on how mice in the desert have different levels of survival. The mice adapt due to a mutation in their Melanocortin 1 Receptor which is something that the students had heard about in previous lessons. I asked the students to select one single trait from our classes’ cat gene pool. For instance, we only had 5 out of 63 posted cats that were all white. I asked them to write out the percentage of their specific trait. Next, they described a realistic scenario where the environment selected for or against this trait. Several students imagined that there was a second ice age. I got as Socratic as I could with them and made students write out WHY the trait would be selected if an ice age came. Finally, they had to write in what they thought the final percentages of the population would be over time. Thus, I lead them through Variation, Selection, and Adaptation. This will help us lead into our next unit of evolution. One of my students lamented that they had their kitten eaten by a hawk earlier this spring. Another mentioned after class that if I needed a cat skin their family had about 30 cats in their barn… I laughed pretty hard until I realized he was serious. You’ve gotta love it when students start connecting genetics to their little small town.

I have just completed the mini unit and I have some mixed feelings as I process and reflect back on it. I think it was a good experience for the students. They were highly engaged in the process (58 out of 63 completed the task of determining the genes of their own cat instead of going online.) and I was glad to see that. The gaping hole in this project is that it needs more authentic artifact or product that the students produce so I can assess their understanding. The most fun part of the process was the number of cat jokes that I was able to work into each lesson. For that alone, it was worth undertaking. Let me know what you think and clue me into any ideas you may have.

Thesis Defense as a Model for Project Assessment

My grand experiment continues. I am attempting to isolate and identify methanotrophic microbes that I believe to be present in Olathe municipal water sources, with a focus on Indian Creek which runs near our high school. That’s not my grand experiment (it’s actually a pretty mundane and simple experiment, despite what my time investment tells you). The meta-experiment is my attempt to tackle this research question by establishing a lab group that operates like a university research lab but uses secondary students as the experimental contributors. The first participants were all AP Biology graduates, but the program is now comprised of students of all grade levels and science tracks.

AP biology-concurrent student preparing for staining procedures.

AP biology-concurrent student preparing for staining procedures.

Students pictured:  AP bio grads, underclassmen on honors track, and upperclassman on vo-tech track. Lots of backgrounds.

Students pictured: AP bio grads, underclassmen on honors track, and upperclassman on vo-tech track. Lots of backgrounds.

My social science experiment has made exciting progress this year because we now have a dedicated class period for all of them to enroll and work together. Before this year all participating students had to work as independent study students flung across all of my other class periods. My attention was always divided and communication between students was very difficult. I’ve been forced to make some decisions about how to grade this class while not destroying the free-form and independent nature of the program that has led to its success so far. I decided to draw from our model again; graduate students defend their work before a panel of their superiors, so we will attempt to do the same.

The full defense format overview document is attached at the end of this post, but the upshot is students were given six minutes to present their work for the semester. Their presentations were followed by 9 minutes of Q&A from a 6 person panel:

  • The program principal investigator – me
  • A practicing scientist – this semester this chair was filled by a GK-12 fellow familiar with our program
  • A building administrator – all available assistant principals and the principal sat for 1 or 2 sessions each
  • USD233 science coordinator – the district K-12 science coordinator
  • Project alum – a graduate of the program returned to sit the panels. He currently is attending Baker University
  • Student’s seat – Each student was asked to fill the final seat with any adult. Most chose a parent, but not all.
Sadly I was too busy through most of the session to remember to take pictures...

Sadly I was too busy through most of the sessions to remember to take pictures…

The sessions were amazing. The students got really serious about the presentations, and the presence of administration convinced them that their time and effort in the program mattered. They created the presentations and performed internal peer review of the sessions. We then reserved the conference room a week early and did a dress rehearsal, in which they were brutal to each other (in a good way). They did additional revisions, and then they organized a students-only additional dress rehearsal again the following week. Every student gave a strong presentation, including students that struggle with one-on-one communication let alone public speaking.

An underclassmen presenting his cell morphology analysis.

A general-track underclassman presenting his cell morphology analysis.

This was a great experience for all the students, and for many of them it was the first presentation they’d ever given about which they really cared. The focus on Q&A caused them to focus on understanding their own work, rather than making a dense PowerPoint as a crutch. I’m hopeful that it will provide some of my students for whom communication is a challenge the experience and skills needed to be able to effectively prepare for job interviews and presentations they’ll have later in life. What I can definitely tell you now is everyone involved had an incredibly positive experience. It’s quite a feeling to drop off thank you notes to administrators and get to stand and listen to them bubble about trying to ask a meaningful question in these complex but engaging presentations.

If you’d like to learn more about my research group, check out our public page here. It will be updated with this year’s independent projects in January.

Biotechnology Defense Panel Overview