`It's so gross, and we love it'

Carroll high school students learn science by studying organisms that grow in nearby waters

December 27, 2007|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Hannah Pennington peered at the sample she had spread on a small slide.

"I don't know what that red thing is," the 17-year-old senior said to her lab partners, assembled around a table in their science research class at Century High School in southern Carroll County.

After further inspection of the sample freshly scraped from discs placed in a small body of water near the school, she said: "Ooh, it's a worm."

"Keep it alive," her classmate Samantha Smith, 17, said. "We want to see him."

The Century students, along with their counterparts at four other Carroll high schools with science research programs, have spent weeks this fall analyzing and studying what scientists call biofilms, communities of bacteria and other organisms that grow on moist surfaces. Through the lenses of their microscopes, and with the help of new video cameras, they have taken an in-depth look at what lurks in area ponds, lakes, streams and wetlands.

These types of projects allow students to conduct "real investigations," said Bryan Shumaker, Carroll's resource teacher for science, technology, engineering and mathematics - also known as STEM.

"It's authentic science," he said.

Next month, Carroll science students are to share their findings from weeks of observation and calculations during a videoconference with peers in Norway, Sweden and Italy, who conducted similar studies of their local bodies of water.

The opportunity for such interaction - organized through the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program - was made possible with a $150,000 grant the school system received last summer. The grant was specifically aimed at fostering interest in the STEM fields. That money has also brought more advanced technology, such as the video cameras, to class labs.

By trying their hand at sampling techniques, the math used to determine the biodiversity of the waters, videoconferencing, capturing data and using high-tech materials, the students touch on various aspects of STEM, Shumaker said.

The research also gives them a chance to do more than the typical class lab with a known outcome, said J. Adam Frederick, a marine education specialist with the extension program, which seeks to connect educators and students with current research and provides information on issues related to the Chesapeake Bay and state coastal waters.

Frederick works at the Center of Marine Biotechnology, a research lab at the Inner Harbor associated with the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, and has worked with schools in Carroll and throughout the state. Many have done some form of the biofilm and biodiversity project, he said, which emerged from center research about a decade ago.

Carroll students said they enjoyed the independent nature of the research, a fresh sense of freedom they hadn't experienced in other science classes.

"It was neat to see what was actually in those streams out there," said Candice McDonald, 16, a junior at South Carroll High School. She and her lab partners have spent about a month trekking to the wetlands behind their school, where they placed their discs.

"It was something different," said Johanna Tiebosch, 17, describing what drew students to the project.

The field she and her peers have explored is "very big" today, Frederick said, as scientists "keep finding new things."

Introducing high school students to the concept of biofilms opens the door to broader applications in the environmental and medical fields, said Mark E. Shirtliff, a biomedical sciences professor at the University of Maryland, who recently received a nearly $2 million grant for his own biofilm research. Shirtliff's work speaks to the potential: He is developing vaccines to prevent chronic infections, including the Staphylococcus bacteria strain known as MRSA.

Karen Luniewski, the science department chairwoman at Century, said six students there are interested in the subject, compared with the usual one or two.

"The ability to have the right technology makes all the difference in the world," Luniewski said."

Pennington, one of her students, was using some of that technology to zero in on the red worm, adjusting a video camera attached to the microscope for a sharper view.

"Ew," Pennington said when she located the small, moving organism on the screen. She called over her lab partners for a look.

"That's so cool," Brittney Sipes, 17, said. "You can see its insides, and you can see its mouth."

Pennington described their feelings succinctly: "It's so gross, and we love it."

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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