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WUSTL projects turn high school students into scientists

Images of professionals wearing white coats in pristine lab settings likely come to mind when visualizing scientific research. But teenagers in torn jeans and hoodies are also informing the body of scientific knowledge in classrooms across the country.

Thanks to collaborations between Washington University in St. Louis and secondary schools nationwide, students are taking on the role of scientist.

A trio of projects, all rooted in WUSTL’s Life Sciences for a Global Community (LSGC) masters program, aim to make science more meaningful to secondary students through hands-on experience.

The Clover Project, which documents the plant’s production of cyanide, originated in the lab of Associate Professor of Biology Ken Olsen seven years ago. Today, 2,500 students in 120 biology classes have contributed to its database, using a readily available material.

“They’re generating real data for a real research project,” Olsen explains. “And they’re doing this with clover plants found in their lawns on on school grounds.”


In 2005, Olsen sought to work with a species with which to study adaptation and its molecular genetic basis. What plentiful plant was already thoroughly researched and designated as a model system?

“Clover fit the bill,” Olsen says. “There’s a lot known about cyanide and how it protects plants. Students can see in a very hands-on way the connection between genetics and the world of natural selection adaptation and ecology.”

When Granby, Conn. high school science teachers Anne Puzzo and Joy Auclair heard Olsen talk about the Clover Project in their LSGC master’s program, they jumped at the chance to move it forward for classroom use.

Today, thanks to a website created largely by LSGC graduate and Lindbergh High School teacher Sheryl Silverberg of St. Louis, students from coast to coast are adding their data to Olsen’s research. The website provides free, easy access to the Clover Project lab protocol and materials.
The lab involves crushing the leaves of local clover, adding sugar or an enzyme or nothing to three wells, covering them with paper and waiting 90 minutes. If the paper turns blue, cyanide gas is present.

“They see that pretty blue color and it really make great sense to the kids,” Puzzo notes.

“It’s a very nice way to make a concrete connection between genes and the environment in natural selection,” Auclair says.

Results from different parts of the country demonstrate the effect of climate on cyanide production.

“It’s a good lab to do at the end of the year to bring everything together: DNA, Mendelian genetics, ecology, herbivory; it touches on so many units,” Silverberg says.

Not only does the Clover Project fulfill numerous education requirements, it encourages students to take science seriously. Students know their results are informing real research to be published in a scientific journal as soon as this spring.

“One girl said to her lab partners, ‘Behave! You have to do this right — it’s important!’ which is really cool for a 10th-grader,” Puzzo recalls.


The prospect of publication is also a motivating factor for students in another joint venture of WUSTL and secondary school classrooms.

The project involves the domestication of wild Arabidopsis thaliana — a common weed that was the first to undergo genome sequencing. The concept originated in the lab of WUSTL biology professor Barbara Schaal, who wanted to study its genetic changes in a variety of environments. But the process looked to be a daunting task.

“It was really hard to do because it was very time consuming and you wanted multiple independent experiments,” Schaal says.

Then, Schaal hit upon the idea of student involvement across the country. It’s a win-win-win situation for the university, science educators and students.

“This was a case where we could accomplish a lot of different things,” Schaal says. “We could develop a science project for the schools, we could let the teachers be involved in independent research and we could and get high-school students to do the work.”

The Arabidopsis Project caught the interest of Fayetteville, Ark. science teacher Bill Rosser during his LSGC program. Now, Rosser’s students are among those participating in the research. Experiments with growing Arabidopsis have resulted in a variety of learning experiences, including the discovery that helicopter plant parenting doesn’t always produce the best results.

“It backfired,” Rosser remembers. “The plants that were best cared for started behaving not like a weed but like a vegetable. They made lots and lots of foliage they didn’t make seeds.”

Greatly boosting the educational value of the project is knowing that these lessons will live in the annals of scientific knowledge. Publication of the data — now collected by Rosser’s and nine other high schools — is expected some time in 2013.

“This is not just, ‘Oh do what the book says and get the result that we already know,” Rosser says. “The students are doing real science and they know this data is going off to a university where people who do science all day, every day care about the results.”

“They can see the way science is actually conducted,” Schaal says. “There is a tendency for people to think science is memorizing facts and that’s incorrect. What scientists do is a process for understanding the natural world.”


This past December, four students from one of Chuck McWilliams’ science classes in the Louis-area Maplewood-Richmond Heights district had the chance to work in Olsen’s biology lab.

They fine-tuned the Weedy Rice Project, involving cultivated and weedy rice, an inedible grain growing in commercial rice fields. The lab exercise helped students make the connection between variations in observable traits and molecular structure.

The students had the opportunity to extract DNA from leaf samples, observe how the final results are revealed and view data on a computer screen with postdoctoral associate Cynthia Vigueira. The results of their work will be will be published in an academic journal.

Working in a real lab provided numerous “firsts.” Senior Morgan Patterson-Gill enjoyed observing the process of crushing plant leaves in liquid nitrogen to extract DNA.

“It looked like water but it was popping — kind of like Pop Rocks,” Patterson-Gill says.

“It was crazy,” exclaims Christine Parham, also a senior. “There are so many steps to extract the DNA. You have to separate the cell membrane and then go through so many processes and so many liquids to get the DNA exact.”

“I think it was really cool how it showed the different colors resembled by the mutations,” observes junior Hannah Hlavaty, who’s eyeing a career in marine biology.

“The technology itself just blew me away,” says Maggie Edmonson, another senior. “We can talk about this stuff at school, but it’s a lot easier to see it, here.”

McWilliams agreed that the university lab adds a new dimension to his teaching.

“It reinforces a lot of what we do in the classroom,” McWilliams says.

Lessons learned during the university visit have value even beyond the scientific realm, as the teenagers look ahead to college and careers.

“We saw all these students who are just studying their tails off and doing all these really big things,” Patterson-Gill says. “It makes me think, ‘I need to get focused.’ I mean, I am focused, but in order to make a difference, like these people, you need to study really hard.”

— Nancy Fowler