At Portal Middle High School, pairing biology graduate students from Georgia Southern University with the school's energetic science teacher has resulted in students performing DNA experiments just like today's leading forensic scientists.
"The kids are having fun, and they've realized science isn't just for geeks," said Anne Newell, who teaches biology and life science at Portal.
Her students are benefitting from both a $2.3 million National Science Foundation GK-12 grant written by Dr. Laura Regassa, a molecular biology professor at GSU, and a $1,000 Foundation for Public Education Grant submitted by Newell.
"The NSF grant allowed me to pull together my teaching, service, and molecular biology research together to create a program that is benefiting graduate students, university faculty, high school teachers and high school students," said Dr. Regassa.
Even before securing the grant, Regassa was regularly helping high school teachers introduce hands-on biotechnology into their classrooms through in-service training workshops.
Now by participating in GSU's grant-funded Molecular Biology Initiative program for the past two years, Portal students better understand today's high-tech science. Using a convenient pond right outside their classroom's back door, students conduct research and experiments on water quality, assess the ecology and sustainability of the pond, and analyze DNA gene flow.
"My students are learning now the ecology, genetic, biochemistry and molecular biology skills that are used not only by scientists, but by students in Ogeechee Technical College's forensic science program and GSU's molecular biology program," said Newell.
Seeing the program's benefits and eager to continue the curriculum in her classroom after the MBI program's resources end, Newell applied for and received a grant from the local Foundation for Public Education. Adding catch and release tanks for her students' discoveries were her first investment.
"Ms. Newell is using technology and her partnership with GSU to successfully bring DNA science to the high school level," said Dr. Lewis Holloway, superintendent.
"This is O.J. Simpson trial science," said Newell, who noted that those students who were not previously intrigued by science, now love it and have a vivid picture of its applications. "They love our outdoor pond classroom, and for some of the boys, the muddier the better."
Tenth grader Shawn McGlamery is living proof of that as he's more than eager to pull on a pair of boots and brave the gnats and mud to search for frogs for the students' catch-and-release study.
"I love it," said McGlamery. "They send me in to do the hard, dirty work."
With assistance from GSU Graduate Student Jake Lasala, the students will analyze the frog population in their classroom pond and then compare their DNA to frogs caught from a neighboring, off-site pond to determine if they are part of the same population.
"My graduate studies are in marine biology and herpetology, and I'm researching sea turtle paternity," Lasala said. "I can share the same research principles I'm using in my graduate studies with these students for their class projects with water quality testing and frog population analysis."
GSU graduate students like Lasala and Michelle Carlson serve as content experts for teachers like Newell by providing information and technical skills while infusing their research into lesson plans and lab activities.
"All of the graduate students are financially supported by GSU and NSF funding, and program participation helps them to excel in their research while improving communication, teamwork, time management and leadership skills," Regassa said.
Helping GSU student scientists communicate like educators is the job of Dr. Missy Bennett. An associate professor in the Teaching & Learning Department within GSU's College of Education, Dr. Bennett is a co-sponsor of the NSF grant along with Dr. Regassa, Dr. Stephen Vives, chairman of the GSU Biology Department and Dr. Bret Danilowicz, dean of the College of Science and Technology.
The initiative is a partnership between Bennett's and Dr. Regassa's departments, as well. The results have touched a chord with students.
"This is my favorite class, and I enjoy it," said Imani Lee. "It teaches me many things about physical science, biology and physics."
For additional information about bringing the GSU microbiology initiative to your school, visit (www.georgiasouthern.edu/mbi) or contact Janee Cardell, GSU's molecular biology program coordinator.