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Discovering Treasure in Rural Schools

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OSU's Rural Science Education Program brings cutting edge science to country classrooms.

In a small classroom in rural Oregon, a scientist opens a treasure chest. Middle schoolers push in to get a closer look at the jewel-like glass beads inside.

“Real family treasures are not jewels like these,” explains Sujaya Rao, an entomologist at Oregon State University. “Your real treasure is your DNA, the genetic material that’s passed down through generations and used to construct everyone in your family, including you.”

Through OSU’s Rural Science Education program, Rao and a team of OSU students and faculty are bringing the treasures of science to rural schools. In this lesson they are using glass beads like molecules to build models of DNA. They help seventh graders thread pairs of beads onto thin strands of silver wire.

The four different colors of beads represent four bases of the DNA molecule: adenine (red), thymine (blue), guanine (green), and cytosine (yellow). Red matches with blue and green matches with yellow, according to a molecular design as ancient as life.

The activity is as elegant as the DNA molecule itself. Each middle schooler creates a double-helix, a delicate double-spiraling chain of paired beads, each patterned from a different code. After an hour, each student has a beautiful piece of jewelry and a greater understanding of the building blocks of life.

Back at the OSU campus in Corvallis, Sujaya Rao wears her double-helix jewelry with obvious pride for the Rural Science Education program. Rao, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science, is the driving force behind the program.

Rao is a serious scientist. As part of Oregon’s Agricultural Experiment Station, she conducts world-class research on pest management in field crops. But, step into her laboratory and, among the computers and analytic equipment, you see colored beads, marshmallows and an entire zoo of bugs. These are some of the tools her students employ as they take on the serious work of teaching science.

With an initial grant from the National Science Foundation, Rao created the Rural Science Education program to connect OSU with teachers in rural Oregon communities. A second grant from Toshiba America Foundation made it possible to integrate biotechnology into the program. Each year, twelve fellowships are awarded to graduate and undergraduate students within the colleges of science and agricultural sciences. Few if any of the fellows plan to become classroom teachers.

Woman with large bug on shoulder.

OSU entomologist, Sujaya Rao, uses all kinds of props, including these walkingstick insects, to engage rural schools in learning about science and biotechnology. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

“We want future scientists to be willing and able to share what they do with the public, to explain what they do and why it is vitally important,” Rao said. “This program helps them do that.

“Science is a great part of our daily lives,” she continued. “But the first mention of biotechnology conjures up images from science-fiction. Because there is controversy, and the subject can seem complicated, biotechnology is a topic that many teachers avoid, especially rural teachers who are stretched thin teaching all the science courses at all levels at their schools.”

The six rural schools involved in the program are all within a 40-mile radius of Corvallis, in communities dominated by agriculture and timber production. In these schools, 10 to 70 percent of the students are eligible for reduced price lunch, and few have had access to the opportunities that larger, urban schools provide.

“We’ve purposely focused on rural schools, because so much is going on at the doorstep of rural communities,” Rao said. “Biotechnology has direct relevance to rural communities, where many of the families are involved in growing and processing food and timber.”

Alsea, Oregon, is a good example.

“When people drive through Alsea on the way to the coast, they see a store, a school and a gas station. That’s it,” said Jeff McGarvey, a former science teacher at the Alsea school, a partner in the program. “But when you teach in this community you see its fields, forests and streams. It’s a community surrounded by science.”

The Rural Science Education program is structured a bit like DNA. Graduate student fellows are paired with undergraduate fellows, and each pair is connected to a rural school teacher and to an OSU faculty advisor. Innovation grows from these interconnections.

Knowledge travels throughout the community, from the OSU campus to rural classrooms and back to campus, according to Devora Shamah, the project’s coordinator at OSU. “It’s what science is all about—communicating ideas and developing new knowledge.”

The program is a big commitment for all involved. Training starts in the summer and continues throughout the school year. The OSU fellows learn how to develop lessons based on modern learning theory and on state and federal standards. The teachers teach the fellows about classroom management, while the fellows teach the teachers about molecular biology, genetics and biotechnology research.

Throughout the school year, the fellows travel to their rural classrooms each week, bringing lessons, equipment and fresh ideas. The OSU program has been able to equip each participating classroom with dissecting microscopes for close examination of tiny organisms. This has made it easier to develop lessons around fruit flies, the workhorses of genetic research.

Fruit flies reproduce rapidly, as anyone knows who has kept bananas too long in the kitchen. And fruit flies display remarkable genetic variation—red or white eyes; curly or straight wings—which has made them a standard feature of most introductory genetics courses. Jeff McGarvey and the OSU fellows working at the Alsea school went way beyond the standard when they developed a curriculum they called “fruit fly ranching.”

A DNA necklace on a chemistry exam.

Discovering the structure of DNA was a scientific breakthrough half a century ago. Today that famous double-helix is reproduced in beads and silver wire, with help from OSU’s Rural Science Education program. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Using resources from the program and OSU, they introduced Mr. McGarvey’s seventh graders to fruit flies and the fruity medium on which to raise them. The middle schoolers examined various groups of flies and documented all the different traits they observed. That’s where most science lessons end, but this one was just beginning.

McGarvey and his OSU fellows created an economy based on fruit flies. They invented a pricing system that valued certain fruit fly traits. Over the next several weeks, the seventh graders raised fruit flies on their own “ranch” and experimented with various breeding strategies to develop unusual or highly prized characteristics in their flies. Each student prepared a business plan and kept track of expenses, earning income by selling the flies they had raised. It was real world stuff in a fruit fly economy as the OSU fellows integrated biology, genetics, economics and business management.

In a lesson to introduce the unseen world of microbiology, OSU fellows Ben Dotson and Celeste Carlisle sent their Falls City seventh and eighth graders on a bacteria hunt, swiping all corners of their school to see where bacteria proliferate.

“They really got into it,” said Carlisle, an undergraduate in animal science. “They compared lots of places: the girls’ versus the boys’ bathrooms; the top of the toilet seat versus the bottom. They were really surprised to find that the dish left on top of the computer for an hour had the most species of bacteria.”

As the year progresses, the lessons build in complexity. After introducing the world of bacteria to their class at Dallas High School, fellows Sarah Gehlhar and Eryn Cramer helped eleventh and twelfth graders create glowing bacteria. By introducing the gene that makes jellyfish glow into an ordinary E. coli bacterium, the high school students genetically engineered glowing bacteria. This process is used increasingly in pharmaceutical laboratories to create microbes to test the effectiveness of new antibacterial medicines.

A teacher learning electrophoresis.

OSU fellows teach the teachers more advanced lessons of biotechnology, as science teacher Michael Rodriguez, from Dallas High School, learns the techniques of electrophoresis. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

By spring, fellows Anne Halgren and Denise Baumann were introducing DNA fingerprinting to their students at Central Linn. Seventh graders prepared a mixture of molecules in a medium that looked like a plate of Jell-O. By running an electric field through the gel, they separated the heavy DNA fragments from the lighter ones, creating distinctive patterns, or fingerprints, of DNA with different molecular weights. This process, called electrophoresis, is used to track everything from criminals to cancer cells.

“These kids go, ‘Eeew!’ when I tell them that with every bite of food they’re eating DNA,” laughed Halgren, a graduate student in botany and plant pathology. “They are forming their fundamental understanding about science right now. It’s critical that these kids learn how to make decisions based on sound science, as they will grow up to be parents, jurors and voters. I like being one of the first people to help shape their understanding of science and themselves.”

"Coming from a rural community, I knew this program was something I wanted to share with my hometown,” said undergraduate fellow Denise Baumann. She isn’t waiting until graduation to begin sharing. In January, 2004, Baumann returned to her school in Athena, a small farming community northeast of Pendleton, to introduce the OSU biotechnology curriculum to teachers there. Baumann and two other OSU fellows taught DNA extraction to Athena high schoolers and helped middle schoolers explore the mechanisms of watersheds. They even brought along a Bug Zoo from the teaching collection at OSU for elementary students to learn about live insects.

“This program offers rural kids a tremendous introduction to OSU,” said Russ Karow, head of OSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Science. “The University gains immeasurably by the ambassadorship of these fellows. Rural teachers gain new skills and tools they can use and share with fellow teachers. And the rural communities gain residents who are far better prepared to make decisions about issues that will be increasingly important in their lives and communities.”

Published in: People