Taking it to the streams

High school students get out of the classroom and into the field, studying salmon populations with curriculum developed here

By Michaele Birney ’90 with Lianna Davis ’04

Good science is good science, whether it’s done by teenagers or adults.

Peter Wimberger, associate professor of biology, and colleagues from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have developed a curriculum that involves high school students in meaningful genetic research on salmon.

Wimberger designed Project GROWS (Genetic Research On Western Salmon) so students could learn modern genetic techniques at the same time they considered salmon and related environmental and conservation issues. Students generate DNA “fingerprints” of salmon to examine differences between populations, doing research very similar to that done by fisheries scientists when they determine whether populations are distinct enough to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The idea for the project came out of a conversation at a summer barbecue between Wimberger and a local high school teacher. “Teachers and students were tired of doing canned lab work,” Wimberger said. “They wanted to do some authentic research where they didn’t know what the answer would be, and they wanted to do it on salmon.”

The Murdock Trust of Van-couver, Wash., gave $124,000 to Project GROWS to fund a full-time coordinator who works directly with high schools on developing the curriculum and carrying out the research. Last April, Lyle Rudensey was hired to fill that position.

Rudensey and Wimberger started by working mostly with Tacoma-area high schools. Rudensey visited schools twice, giving an introductory lecture about Project GROWS and demonstrating proper use of the equipment, then returning to the school two weeks later to help the students analyze data.

Since then Rudensey has found that being in the classroom every day while the students carry out their research greatly increases classroom success rates, so now he visits each class, on average, six times.

Over the summer, Project GROWS expanded to include a workshop for high school teachers. Working with University of Washington scientist Ginger Armbrust, who uses similar techniques in her studies of phytoplankton, Wimberger and Rudensey showed teachers how to use GROWS techniques and curricula in their classrooms. Rudensey also worked with a summer school class at Seattle’s Franklin High School.

Now Project GROWS has expanded even further. This year it will work with about 25 schools and 1700 students from Olympia to Bellingham to Yakima, as well as one in Utah.

“I think we’ve made a name for ourselves in the high school biotech community,” Rudensey said. “A lot of teachers have told me they heard from others that we were the best outreach program in the area. I think we’ve also had a positive effect on many students. They seem to enjoy the experience of doing some ‘real’ science, and like that the work they’re doing matters.”

And it does matter. A Kamiak High School class examined supposedly different wild and hatchery coho populations from a stream emptying into Hood Canal. When the students found no genetic difference, it stimulated further investigation by NMFS researchers. A Centralia High School student continued her classroom project by doing an independent project on Chehalis River wild and hatchery coho salmon. She found genetic differences where none were expected, and her project netted her first place in a state science symposium and second place at a national high school science competition.

“As far as the data go, we’ve had some surprising findings, such as nearly all fish being the same genotype from some populations,” Rudensey said. “We’re hoping to bring a symposium together at the end of the year to bring students, teachers and scientists together to review the work and see what it all might mean.”

Although some students may be inspired to careers in biology because of Project GROWS, Wimberger feels they all take away something important. “The education gives them the confidence to think about important scientific issues and improves their ability to think critically,” he said. “They learn how to ask questions and interpret evidence.”

The current grant expires in October 2002, but Wimberger and Rudensey hope to apply for additional funding, which will extend the program through the 2002-03 school year. They also hope to increase the teacher training portion of the program so the project can continue after that time.

“I’ve enjoyed getting to know the teachers and students in the different schools,” Rudensey said. “I also like the adventure of going somewhere new every couple of weeks and the challenge of working with a new group of kids.”