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Teaching Invaluable Science Literacy Skills

biology classWhile learning how to conduct collegiate scientific research, State College Area High School students may have helped save a vulnerable environment 2,500 miles away.


In the Advanced Biology Elective Research Course taught by Danielle Rosensteel, students design, execute and present independent research projects. Three this year could contribute to a pilot program run by a Penn State lab and Colombian scientists to study the impact of climate change in the remote Paramos region near Bogotá.


Paramos are high-altitude Andean Mountain moorlands that have been called “the world’s fastest evolving and coolest biodiversity hotspot.” Highly adapted plants draw moisture from low-hanging clouds into the soil, an ecosystem that supplies water to lower tropical ecosystems and nearby urban centers. 


But changing cloud patterns are causing the Paramos plants to shift to higher elevations in pursuit of moisture, reducing groundwater. Climate change scenarios project the ecosystem to shrink considerably or even disappear within the next 50 years, with severe environmental consequences.


How did a small State High class enter the picture? That was thanks to Rosensteel, a former University of Georgia biology researcher who started the ABE course in 2017 to prepare select students for university labs.


“These students are doing high-level, collegiate-level research,” Rosensteel said. “All of these learning experiences are authentic. It’s teaching them how to be a scientist and how to do research.”


Rosensteel proposed the advanced research class after her first year teaching State High’s lab-intensive advanced biology elective courses. Writing admission recommendations, seeing the elite schools her most ambitious students hoped to enter, she saw how she could help by showing them the nuts and bolts of university lab research.


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“I saw the need for it with the level of students we’re working with here and how successful they can be,” she said. “These students are going to top universities, top research programs, and if I can give them the foundation now, just think of how much more successful they can be in these programs. It gives them a jump-start.”


Students must apply for the course, with most having completed all four of Rosensteel’s advanced biology electives and a collective 40 labs. Once in, they first analyze peer-reviewed journal articles to familiarize themselves with scientific research, then learn to identify project ideas that tackle real-world needs or issues. A group project, funded this year with a grant from the SCASD Education Foundation's Mardi Lowry McDonough '87 Student Opportunity Fund, teaches lab teamwork before students branch out for months of their own research.


As much as possible, Rosensteel aims to simulate a college researcher’s experience. Students assess funds and resources for projects, help apply for grants if necessary, come up with research questions, create experiments, and analyze data with the help of math teacher Erol McGowan and his statistics students. They present their work at competitions and a culminating symposium, as well as write formal scientific papers. Rosensteel also has formed relationships with Penn State labs for resources and supplies, guest visits and field trip tours — which is how the Colombian connection came about.


Rosensteel reached out to Dr. Estelle Couradeau, a Penn State assistant professor of soils and environmental microbiology who’s working with a Colombian colleague, Dr. Johanna Vanegas, to mitigate the Paramos ecosystem’s changes. Couradeau, who was seeking an outreach project involving K-12 students, was impressed enough to enter a mutually beneficial partnership.


“When I first met Danielle, I immediately loved the way that she was running the research class,” Couradeau said. “I thought this was something that I would have loved as a student, being empowered to design and execute my own research project. In high school, research was a big black box for me, and I was really intimidated by it. I think getting the experience early and meeting faculty from a research institution will lower the barriers I experienced for these students.”


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Two of the six projects this year explored how Paramos-like conditions affected plant water inception and growth. Quiana Guo varied temperature and humidity levels for rape brassica plants, a substitute for unavailable Paramos flora, and measured and analyzed changes in the leaves’ stomata, tiny epidermal pores. Also using epidermal samples, Sarah Huang looked at how the shape of bromeliads, the key type of Paramos plant, aids their water inception and how differing humidity influences that function. Both projects could eventually inform outdoor experiments in Colombia.


Conner Reid’s potential impact on the Paramos took the form of building a lightweight, battery-powered data-logger prototype for less than $70. Once it’s in the ground, sensors gauge soil moisture and temperature, air temperature and humidity, and methane concentration. 


“Current data-logging systems are really expensive, running up to hundreds of dollars,” Reid said. “I was working with people working in the Paramos to see if we could get affordable sensors that we could deploy and measure different areas, since it’s such a unique climate and it’s changing. It’s better to have widespread data than a lot concentrated from just one point.”


While not explicitly tied to Colombia, three other course projects were just as thoughtfully done.


Ethan Brennan focused on fungal biofertilizers that form a symbiotic relationship with plants, providing nutrients and drought resistance in exchange for sugar. With crops, plowing often destroys natural fungi in the soil, so farmers turn to commercial varieties. To test their efficacy, Brennan compared their effect on carrots’ germination and growth rates with that of wild-type ones.


Spurred by seeing the impact of COVID-19 pandemic quarantines and isolation on people’s mental health, Jenni Wang studied how environmental and social stress affect the survival and reproduction of fruit flies over their 10-day life cycles. She subjected the flies to varying temperatures and density levels within containers, also measuring synergy between the two variables.


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Cell biology research in Penn State Associate Professor of Biology Charles Anderson’s lab — another course partner, along with Penn State’s Lian Lab —  prompted Fatima Nadeem to examine how the ethylene hormone affects short-term and long-term plant development. Using the chemical precursor to ethylene instead of the actual gas for classroom safety, she measured leaf stomata after applying a liquid solution and overall growth from adding the solution to the watering procedure. 


In addition, all six students collaborated on a group project that tested, with rat bones, how hydrogel could be used for internal casts to help mend human fractures more quickly and efficiently. They presented their findings, along with their respective projects, in April before a large audience of fellow students, parents, teachers and invited professors.


“I am so impressed by the students,” Couradeau said, noting they gained fundamental research skills for designing experiments, such as thinking of appropriate controls, creating replication levels and collecting data, and for understanding statistics and data.


“These are invaluable science literacy skills that will translate beyond this class no matter where they decide to pursue an undergraduate degree, because they will now be able to think critically and interpret news articles that report or misreport scientific knowledge. They also have developed impeccable professional skills. Teachers and researchers who will work with them in college will be very lucky to count them among their trainees.”


Rosensteel's students are counting on that edge. They said that their projects and her instruction have prepared them for all aspects of collegiate research, from forming meaningful questions, planning experiments and managing time to honing lab techniques, organizing notes and even being resilient. 


“This class helps you because you do everything from beginning to end yourself, and so it’s really eye-opening to see that nothing is ever going to go your way completely,” Guo said. “Compared to other labs, where you’re given a procedure and told what to do, here you have to come up with your own idea and figure out how to analyze data yourself. It’s all a lot more independent, and it’s freeing at the same time. You learn a lot more through this class.”


That’s what Rosensteel annually hopes as she mentors aspiring researchers, possibly launching them on the road to breakthrough discoveries some day.


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“It’s turned into a really great classroom community where they trust me, I trust them. We can work together,” she said. “They understand that it’s not just about learning the scientific method or preparing for the Keystone Exam. It’s about understanding what you’re doing now, how it can affect people later. How are we going to feed the world in 10 years? How are we going to help with this nutrient deficiency in that area of the world? It’s just answering these bigger questions, and they feel like they’re more part of the process. They’re making a difference at this level, so it motivates them and gives them confidence to move on to the next level.”


By Chris Rosenblum

Photos by Nabil K. Mark