UA prof gives budding scientists experience they can't get in class

2012-10-27T00:00:00Z UA prof gives budding scientists experience they can't get in classBrenna Goth Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
October 27, 2012 12:00 am  • 

A UA researcher is being recognized for developing a course that turns high school students into citizen scientists.

Betsy Arnold, an associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Plant Sciences, collaborated with Tucson High Magnet School science teacher Margaret Wilch to create an endophyte discovery workshop last spring.

Students spent the semester collecting and testing endophytes - bacteria and fungi growing in the leaves and stems of plants - in Saguaro National Park.

A similar course at Yale University recently won Science Magazine's Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction. Arnold contributed to the winners' essay.

The award recognizes courses that give students science experience beyond learning facts in the classroom. Yale professors contacted Arnold about her workshop because it reached students from diverse populations.

Nearly 130 students from Wilch's honors biology and biotechnology classes participated in the workshop from January to May. The students worked throughout the semester in the field, in UA labs and in labs at the high school.

"Students said they had never participated in 'real' science before," Wilch said. "They didn't know how involved it is."

The students became direct contributors to Arnold's research evaluating endophyte diversity and adaptation in Sonoran Desert plants such as creosote and jojoba.

Endophytes are found in every type of plant and can help their hosts. Some include antibiotic properties. Only a small percentage of endophytes have been identified, making the students' help valuable, Arnold said.

Arnold previously worked with individual students in Wilch's classes as well as students from the Navajo Nation.

Wilch received grant funding to work with a researcher and approached Arnold about the large-scale collaboration.

Arnold gave each class an introductory lecture, and students spent a day doing fieldwork in the national park. Students collected plant material and brought it to labs at the UA.

They waited for fungi to grow inside the plants, isolated the fungi and extracted DNA. Genome sequencing allowed students to identify the fungi - and some students found new species.

The workshop provided many students with their first lab experiences out of the classroom, said Holly Bentkowski, a senior at Tucson High Magnet School who took the course last semester.

Bentkowski said the experience made her consider scientific research as a possibility in college and beyond. She is now a student in Wilch's research methods class.

"Having the UA come to us definitely helped with our science careers," she said.

The students' findings will be included in the lab's publications, Arnold said. She plans on offering the workshop with Wilch again next semester.

Involvement in a long-term project sparked students' interest in science more than the one- or two-day labs typically found in high school science classes, Wilch said.

"I think once students get a taste of the process of science, it's very different than being taught the facts," she said. "It's a really rich experience for everyone involved."

Brenna Goth is a NASA Space Grant intern. Contact: bgoth@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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