Passing the salt takes new meaning

1:18:34 PM CDT - Tuesday, December 05, 2006

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Mark Schneegurt says he likes doing "kitchen science" — showing folks how easily science can be understood by using everyday items in their kitchen or elsewhere.

With that understanding, it makes sense that the WSU associate professor of biological sciences' current major outreach project is called "Pass Me the Salt."

pass the salt grad students
Courtesy photo
WSU graduate students, left to right, Brooke Landon, Ingrid Caton and Dustin Weber, are working with science teachers and students at three public Wichita high schools in a project that connects WSU scientists with high school students in an effort to enhance science education.
While it has a catchy title - with "salt" in this case referring to "wisdom" - the project is aimed at helping both graduate students and high school students, particularly minorities, reap the benefits of science education. One byproduct of the project is to increase the number of minorities in science fields.

Another is to expose graduate students, such as Ingrid Caton, to the current science education being taught in K-12, so if those graduate students should become college professors, they'll have a better understanding of the education their future students received in high school. Plus they may be more likely to participate in future outreach activities.

With a $786,000 grant from the graduate fellows in K-12 education program of the National Science Foundation, Schneegurt is putting graduate students along with research-quality equipment and lesson modules into the science classrooms of Wichita public high schools.

The science labs at North, Northwest and Northeast Magnet high schools already have been outfitted with equipment that will help students do experiments in molecular biology, such as cutting up DNA, and perform research.

Three graduate students have also been assigned to work with the science teachers and students in those schools, helping develop lesson plans in the topics of biodiversity and forensics, a hot science field fueled by TV’s wildly popular "CSI" crime dramas.

While the bond passage in 2000 by Wichita voters allowed USD 259 to improve 150 science classrooms, the money didn't provide for new equipment.

"This is a nice layering of programs to have the students get laboratories and equipment," said Terry Behrendt, the school district's executive director of grants and development services, a position similar to WSU's research administration director.

The project also allows minority students to see that it's possible to pursue a career in science.
Caton, who's been spending about 15 hours a week working with two North High science teachers as part of the project, recalled asking a student about her career expectations. When the student shared that she'd like to work for NASA, another kid piped up that he had thought about that, too, but thought it would be hard.

That opened the door for Caton, a native of Colombia, to share that she had a similar dream while growing up on her parent's coffee-bean farm. As a native Spanish speaker, Caton also can relate to the Hispanic students at North High.

"I understand the language barrier being a difficulty for these students," said Caton, who extended her college career an extra year at WSU just to participate in the "Pass Me the Salt" project. She plans to enroll in the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita next year.

The kind of interaction Caton is having with students is exactly what the project is intended to do.

"We're trying to encourage students to see that they can be a scientist by getting them in touch with college scientists, graduate students and faculty researchers, since they might not have such role models," Schneegurt said.

Besides one-on-one interaction in the classroom, the project will also incorporate technology feeds from Schneegurt's lab in Hubbard Hall, where high school students can watch college students conducting experiments.

"They'll see science is an active, loud, exciting environment, and it's not boring," said Schneegurt.
Another component of the project is to have the high school students form research clubs. With their partnership with WSU scientists, the students will be encouraged to do "true discovery research," not simply re-create experiments, that could lead to publishable results, Schneegurt noted.

At North High, for example, Caton mentors the club, which has about 15 members.

Even if the high school students don't pursue a career in science, they'll still benefit from having an enhanced science education and be better citizens, Schneegurt noted.

"An understanding of the life sciences is essential to a quality education, informing graduates on everything from health care to gardening, from hotly debated social issues to bioterrorism, from food preparation to pollution," Schneegurt wrote in his grant proposal to the NSF. "An informed electorate needs to have a background in life sciences."

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