Was in my Classroom: A Biotechnology Program

I got some really great news recently: some of my biotech students from last year are insisting that the program live beyond my tenure. The students who persist are not your typical advanced science participants (both were new last year and had zero science training beyond their graduation-required science courses). They found a sense of purpose and belonging and I’m really moved that they are exercising their agency. The program is more than the principle investigator.

My Report: By Michael Ralph

They have a new sponsor and the question has turned again to, “What the heck is the Biotech program at Olathe East?” This is an open letter to the new sponsor, and I share it here so my debrief can be of value to anyone else considering something weird. Here we go.

 

What Would Professionals Do?

Keystone Habit #1: BE a Research Lab

We did everything like a grant-funded university research lab. Every question was, “How do professionals do it? We will do it like that.” There was no pre-planned curriculum. There were no tests. There were no points. One thing matters: the question. Can we get methanotrophs out of there? The joke gets made frequently that, “[some biology topic] could be a whole course right there!” Ha ha, but it won’t be… Well, this was that course. From day one, I assigned new students to help me address my question. Train on taking water samples, learn to cell stain, build me a sensor… we’ve got stuff to do. When they needed chemistry to mix the Nitrate Mineral Medium 2014 (NMM14), we’d stop and learn it. When pressure gradients were needed to understand a sampling design, we’d learn that too. Professionals have meetings, so we had them. Professionals present at conferences, so we did that. Professionals do outreach, so it’s on the calendar. WWPD, all day every day.

When students started to become more comfortable in the space, they invariably start having ideas and asking questions. We’d follow the postdoc model and let them split their time. My veterans of several years would have the freedom and authority to oversee an entire research team. Students specialized and began to follow their own interests, while still having responsibilities to the original investigation.

Take home recommendation: craft your own driving question. It’s got to be really good. Then focus on nothing else.

 

Only one thing I can’t use… a credit card.

 

Keystone Habit #2: We’re Cheap

Necessity is the driver of innovation. We performed robust biogeochemical analysis with scraps and pennies. Only 1 of our 5 years did we have any dedicated budget (it was in the middle and it went away again). Scrap lumber from theater, scrap electrical from district contractors, spare keyboards from IT, waste planters from horticulture… being efficient scrappers was so ingrained in everyone’s attitude that when we did the final tear down I had to throw many of the items away myself because students could not be convinced anything was trash.

Big flashy equipment is a crutch when students don’t yet understand the fundamental concepts they’re investigating. When you really commit to finding a way, it’s amazing what you can make work. 3D print parts rather than buy them. Leftover dry ice in shipping materials. Creating long-term storage cultures in the freezer rather than reordering. Mixing your own bacterial media instead of pre-made. It makes the program cost-effective and the students see more of what goes into the project. They understand the bacterial medium because they had to make it. Sterilization makes sense because it was a total pain to sterilize that equipment.

Take home recommendation: fancy equipment and protocols are not the point. They take great pictures, but they aren’t science. This stuff is hard and making any arbitrary technique the course focus will obscure what it actually means to learn in a biological research space.

 

Anyone can help those who can already help themselves.

Keystone Habit #3: We’re Inclusive

A good driving question is both accessible and complex. That means nobody who hasn’t intentionally trained in that area will have strong background knowledge on how to investigate it. The end result is who cares what level of math they’re in?!? AP Biology students know as much about methanotrophy as freshman (in every practical sense). We have a serious exclusion problem in high school science; don’t be a part of that problem. Any student… ANY STUDENT… who is interested and willing to join should be welcomed. I have a litany of “not science students” in my alumni base who made powerful contributions to our project. I had freshman leading research teams, remedial students self-identifying as mycologists, and more.

There are plenty of biotech programs out there, collegiate and high school. They are picturesque spaces with students in lab coats wearing goggles staring intently at test tubes. They burn through budgets and look great on resumes. The problem with these programs is the course has become about the techniques. Put your hands on an electrophoresis chamber. Check. Touch a thermocycler. Check. These are Petri dishes. Moving on. Biotechnology in the industry sense is a highly derivative field that requires expertise in more than a half dozen disciplines. Our high school students are not that. Indeed, the few who can be have boatloads of options for how to pursue enrichment. The world doesn’t really need an expensive, esoteric course to serve the 1 or 2 students a year ready for that kind of work.

Take home recommendation: Get Them All Involved. I’m not saying tolerate distraction, destruction or ineffective behaviors. What I am saying is it’s easy to quibble with the all the other programs about that top 3% of students who will spin gold in any classroom. Instead, find all the other students who just want to do something meaningful… and give them some sweet science to explore.

 

There’s so much more I think and want to say, but ultimately this post is prompted by students. Let the program be theirs. For that matter let it be yours too. Don’t investigate methanotrophs, find your own thing. Let the students help you decide what that might be. Talk with others in the field when you need help. The putting greens are pleasant, but well-traveled. Get out in the weeds a bit.

 

And post about it. A very proud former investigator will be following your progress.

Aquaponics PBL

My students built their own aquaponics systems this spring.

First, I introduced a driving question to drive the project with a video. Next, the students broke into groups and explored three different types of aquapoincs units nutrient film, deep water culture, and media bed units. Then they shared what they had learned about these units in a jigsaw. After everyone had looked at the different types of units I asked each student which type they were most interested in making. They then were able to look at designs and make drawings of their own unit. Their homework was to bring this design to the next class. To begin the designs are unpolished

It is so amazing to be an educator and help facilitate this into a working system that a student can be proud to show off.

That night I made student groups based on the type of unit they were interested in making. I also chose groups so that I could pair kids with others who they could get along with. It is important and challenging to get student group dynamics right. Personally, I feel that an educator doesn’t need to follow some formula for this they should intuit based on their knowledge of students. The next day students got into the group I assigned to them and shared the diagram they had made. Students then used technology to make a single design as a group.

The work of revising models is something that this project has so much potential in developing.

I critiqued each groups design then sent them to the greenhouse to collect their supplies. Each group was given a 10 gallon aquarium, clay pellets, a $10 aquarium pump, air supply, and a chemical test kit. Other materials/tools that are necessary are a drill, string, silicon caulk, PVC, guttering, compound miner saws, plastic containers, and tubing. Supplying electricity is a serious safety concern. It is very helpful to be friends with the shop teacher.

Students quickly run into the realization that their model is very hard to achieve. Some models are even impossible. The first time I ran this activity I had students revise their models many times but this consumed lots of available work time. Now, I let them simply change their units with no revision to the model. These sorts of revisions can actually be really frustrating for students. Once they see water pumping and have some vision that the system will work the groups get collective energy to get work completed. Now I just have a quick discussion about how well the models work and why they’re useful. I originally had this idea of students revising their models several times, but I feel I had to let that go in order to have time for actually building the real units.

Students setting up a system this group had a very clever design that maximized growing space by using vertical space, but at night they would lose all their water so they had to make several revisions to their original plan.

Projects like this take days to work through. In order to grade students I actually have them grade themselves using a simple yet effective self assessment tool.

Each student has a column and must describe how they helped contribute to their group. If one student does more work than other students in the group it is possible that that student receives their points. If the student group does suggest that one student did not carry their load I am the judge of this decision. I base the decision on evidence of work done and conferences with student groups. If a student is gone for the day I ask them to come in during study hall and contribute the same amount that their partners did on the project. The tool is very powerful because it forces students to negotiate fair and appropriate workloads for one another. This is a huge part of what I am facilitating throughout the project. The first several days I will stop the groups every 15 minutes and ask them to write down what each group member did. Once they get the hang of it they write down tasks they have performed on their own. It may sound very simplistic but I have found it very helpful and with 120 students working this system I only had 5 times this year where I held group conferences. This proactive approach is much better for me than dealing with emails about how one student did “all the work in the group” then retroactively trying to negotiate things. I strongly suggest this as a method for helping to manage student groups on projects.

 

Students who successfully navigate workloads enter into the rest of life with great work skills.

The students do eventually get to the point where their system filters water through. It is amazing to see a system that really works. I have had several students decide that they want to go into designing aquaponics systems for a career. It is so cool to see how much pride they have in their systems.

Proud students show off a system that produced many tomatoes. The next step will be helping our culinary classes by growing veggie plants.
This is MY aquaponics build. Lots of these systems can be scaled up if your are crazy enough to do it.

Jeff & Pam Meyer, the owners of CalAnn farms a working hydroponics farm in Basehor generously showed us their facility. By tying in this real-world experience it helped direct students further up the road. It also gave us new ideas about ways to run more productive systems in our school.

Students see that their work is not just to get a grade but rather means to a career.
Jeff Meyer from CalAnn Farms explaining the process of sprouting thousands of basil seed.
Why not have some fun?  🙂

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!
Sincerely,
David Levering
Education Director
DALevering@FHSU.edu
785-639-5249

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: http://www.citizenscience.us/imp/, 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: http://www.aquaculturestore.com/Mosquito-Larvae.html).

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 (http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/classroom-activities-mosquito-life-cycle). 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!