Authentic Research Experience

In our lab, we use the fruit fly to explore genes and processes that are required for proper development of organisms. The fly is a useful model to understand human development due to its similarity with many other organisms, including humans. The fruit fly has been used for over a hundred years as a research tool and has aided in understanding many of the underlying mechanisms in human disease and development. This long established history provides a strong framework for us to better understand the genetic and cellular basis of development in flies to where we can then better understand how a similar process occurs in humans.

At the start of this academic semester, my goal was to work with my partner teacher, Camden, to create an authentic research experience that integrates real questions that have originated during my graduate training. At this point, Camden and I have worked together to identify areas where there is overlap between the project and the course curriculum and how they will align over the course of the next few months. We are also creating an assessment to identify the students’ baseline knowledge and if there are any misconceptions regarding the content we will be covering.  A critical component in making this work will be the timing. The project itself is a large undertaking. This is certainly going to be complicated by unexpected results, student holidays, and many other unknown factors. While the process has been overwhelming at times, it has been very interesting to see how well our individual skill sets are complementary for designing the experience.

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One Program, Multiple Experiences

As fellows, we are asked to bring context and perspective from our graduate experience into the K-12 classroom. The intent is that the overall experience will assist in improving our ability to connect with undergraduates and become more effective educators in the academic arena. As a returning fellow (3rd time around), I have seen this take shape over a number of trails in multiple contexts. It has been interesting to observe both the expected outcomes and unexpected surprises of these attempts. Surprisingly through different years in the program my experiences have been widely different (both within the group of fellows and in the actual program).

The initial fellowship period, put me in the middle school classroom for the first time since I was a student in middle school myself. It was interesting to observe how many things changed along with many of the things that stayed the same. Being in an urban middle school was a bit of a change, but I found a bright and engaged group of kids. As I spent the year adjusting to the rhythms of the classroom, I began to refine my approach of explaining my research. Further I found that being a trained engineer allowed a variety of examples and texture to be added to a wide breadth of discussions in the natural science classroom. By the conclusion of the first term in the program, my partner teacher and I were able to start building a context around water quality as the focus of inquiry. I had been able to affect the perspective of how an engineers/scientist spent their day (and what one might look like). Most surprisingly I was able to engage the kids in a discussion around energy based on the work I was doing in biofuels at the time. Although I was not able to achieve some of the things that I had set out to accomplish, my outlook had been tempered by an actual view of the inter-workings of a classroom and my ability to connect with school children at the middle school level was greatly strengthened.

The second fellowship experience, I focused on making my efforts sustainable. Quickly I realized that my tenure in the classroom was designed as a temporary exercise. As such, it was my intent to put the resources and a base of experience in place for an ongoing program. The area of water quality continued to be a focusing topic and we were able to connect with an organization that conducted water quality testing to give the students a foundation upon which to begin to construct a context. The most surprising component of this process was the roles that were played by my partner teacher and her administration. Building an ongoing program, especially in a resource constrained scenario, can be a delicate balancing act. Many of the activities like going to a local creek or scheduling concurrently with various testing and other school activities were surprising stumbling blocks. However, with the determination of my partner teacher we were able to start laying the foundation for a program that allowed urban middle school students to ask and answer their own questions around the topic of water quality.

This year marks my 3rd fellowship period. After two fellowships spent in a middle school, I am now in a high school setting. Further the partner teacher that I have paired with has been running a research group that aims to isolate and identify methanotrophic bacteria in their local environment. This scenario represents a significant departure from my previous experiences. Some of the topics that we have already started to address are best practices for managing a research group (communications, funding …). This experience is part of the experience that a junior faculty member may see in starting their own research program. I am looking forward to this fellowship experience as it will build on some of strengths gained in the program and continue to expand my capabilities.

My previous experiences have challenged me to think about effective communications, program sustainability and connecting students with representative real world applications for context. In this term I will support the development of a research program in a high school that aims at generating work that will identify and understand the methanotrophic organisms in the local environment. Thinking back on this sequence of experience, I can’t help but see the similarity to the journey that a teacher might take on the way toward implementing project based instruction that will eventually lead to the genesis of interesting questions. It is my hope that having had this context will enable me to support the further development of the research program with my partner teacher. Over the next several months, I will continue to blog about my progress and developments. The next blog will expand on my experience in the high school this year and provide some background on the focus of my research.

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Reflection on my first weeks as a GK-12 Fellow

My name is Annaria Barnds and I am a 1st year GK-12 fellow and a 4th year Biomechanics PhD student who studies the effects of the progression of Parkinson’s disease on motor control and balance but I am also very passionate about education and teaching; therefore I am very excited about the opportunity to get out of the lab once a week and into an 8th grade science classroom in KCK.

I am paired with Ralph Ziegler, an 8th grade science teacher at Rosedale Middle School in Kansas City, KS.  While I have done tutoring over the years with middle school aged children, prior to the GK-12 the last time I was in a middle school classroom during regular lesson hours was probably when I was an 8th grade student myself.

My most interesting observation in my first few weeks at Rosedale was that getting kids excited about science doesn’t always take flashy technology or smart phones- just some creativity and imagination does the trick. Right now Ralph’s 8th graders are learning about planets in our solar system and the phases of the moon. And while a well-done video or interactive smart-phone quiz may have also been effective in teaching these topics to the students, Ralph’s classroom doesn’t have these capabilities so the methods he employed involved simpler things like a football field, a basketball, or an overhead projector. 

For example, when the students were learning how many million miles each planet was from the sun, they weren’t actively visualizing just how far away Neptune, for example, was from the other more tightly packed planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. However when we brought all the students out to the football field where different students represented each planet, with their relative distance apart scaled to yards, seeing was believing.  This relatively simple exercise really helped the students understand not only the location of planets, but also how vast our solar system is and why certain planets take much longer to revolve around the sun.

I am looking forward to this entire academic year where myself, the students, and my teacher will continue to learn together; I foresee this hopefully being my most rewarding year so far as a graduate student thanks to the GK-12 Fellowship.

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A different kind of “school”

This is my third year as a GK12 fellow, and I feel very lucky to be able to keep learning and trying new things each year.  This year is a very different venue for me.  In my first two years, I worked with 8th grade earth science classes in two different schools in a district that is complicated (aren’t they all?).  This year I’m working with high school juniors and seniors in a program from a different district that has different complications.

I’ve started working with the Environmental Science and Animal Health class at Blue Valley’s CAPS Program (Center for Advanced Professional Studies).  If you’re interested, you can hear more about the CAPS program from a KCPT story here (, and see the teacher’s blog here ( 


Now, let me say up front that this program is an exceptionally well-funded public program, and it is located in an area of the city where entrepreneurship and professional careers are present in the majority of households in the district.  This was not the case in the previous district with which I have been connected.

The funding, though, is not the interesting part for me.  I have tried to get past the dollar figures that people put up front and listen to the ideas that guide the program.  At 2:03 and 5:18 in the video, the Executive Director of CAPS, Donna Deeds, and the Blue Valley School District Superintendent, Dr. Tom Trigg, both talk about the learning model of the future.  If you skip everything else, please just watch these one minute  statements to hear what they are trying to do.

I will write more about the room and the classes and the students that I have been working with at CAPS, but some of the fundamental differences from a traditional public school that I’ve seen so far are these:

1.  CAPS is a program, not a school.  They bring in students for  two classes of about 3 hours each, every day of the week, but those students spend the rest of their time at their home high school (where all of the national assessments, sports, etc. take place). 

2.  These classes are implicitly project based.  The students know that, the teachers know that, and the administrators know that.  The courses are structured such that they do projects, and all of the content information and background instruction is framed in the context of achieving the real, immediate goals of the project.

3.  There is a framework of support for project based work.  The teachers have time between classes to address any issues that need to be solved for things to progress.  They have ready access to resources (technology, transportation, expertise, field trips, etc.), sometimes in house, but more often than not, through partnerships with businesses, institutions, and other schools and programs.  And, most importantly, the teachers are expected to do, supported in, and recognized for all of the work that they do beyond content instruction to make the projects happen, including making contacts, finding resources, etc.

4.  The ties with local partners in the business community lead directly to fellowship and employment opportunities for the students.  They also lead to a culture of connection, professionalism, and community service.

5.  The public school district is in partnership with the program.  Without the support of the district, this program would not be open to as many students as it is, and the district superintendent firmly believes that access to the program should be available to every student, saying if a student can “convince us that they are serious about this, then we want to give them an opportunity.”

Whether this model will work for the long term remains to be seen, but it is a real attempt to bring project based instruction into a sustainable framework at a school district scale. 

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Excitement for the year of GK12

My name is Allen Eastlund and I am a new GK12 member this year. My background is in physics and my current research is in biophysics. I specifically study DNA regulation. For a little more depth, think of it this way: the DNA inside your cells is packed very tightly and to correctly regulate the information stored in the DNA it has to be unpacked in the right order. If it’s not, all sorts of genetic disorders can pop up such as cancer, alzheimers, and tumors. To fully understand the genetic cause of some of these diseases, we have to understand how the DNA packaging is regulated; I study the proteins that are responsible for this regulation and hopefully we can figure out what they do wrong and fix it.

Taking this sort of information into a younger environment has been interesting. I’m having a wonderful time so far teaching and being taught inside of an Olathe high school classroom but I did notice a lot of blank stares when I mentioned most of these topics. I have been asked two very interesting and fun questions regarding biophysics, namely “If you study biology, where’s the physics?” and “which is more fundamental, physics or biology?” The second is a paraphrase but I’m sure she won’t mind and you get the picture.

What I found really interesting about these questions (besides my answers) was the perception that these sciences are entirely separate! That physics happens at a collider in Geneva and Biology happens in test tubes and flasks. I prodded them a little bit before giving them my answer, asking why they thought they were separate and they were flabbergasted that I even asked the question. They had been brought through the school system without ever a single mention of any sort of overlap so to have a ‘biophysicist’ in front of them was very strange and exotic.

After telling them that physics is the basis of what makes anything work in the physical world and that biology is a very (very, very) complex application of physical properties, they suddenly seemed much more interested in my presence in the room!

I look forward to an excellent year in GK12!

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Looking back on it all

Returning fellows have been asked to post our reflections on our GK12 experience.  I, like many, have been changed profoundly  by this fellowship, and I’ve been thinking about how to write this post for several months.  I tried to come up with something both profound and detailed about pedagogy and education and the path forward, but formality is not my strong suit. Instead of writing my treatise, I just keep looking back to the same moment.

There I was.  Hungry.  Waiting impatiently… for pizza.  I was, I think, in middle school (we called it “junior high” way back then).  Or it might have been grade school, I’m not very good with years.  Anyway, the point is that I was HUNGRY.  I was sitting in my living room pretending to practice my piano, waiting.

The doorbell rang, my mom answered the door, and this guy came in with a ball cap and my dinner.  I think now that he was in college, but of course I didn’t really know what that meant at the time.  I just wanted the pizza.  He pointed to the piano, I said I was practicing, and then, something amazing happened.

He walked over to the piano and started playing this crazy jazz music that I had never heard before.  He played for a few seconds, then scribbled some notes on a book that I had out, then played them again.  He said, you can do this, or this, or this, or if you don’t like any of those, just try your own.  I was dumbfounded.   He smiled, and took the money for the pizza, and was gone.

Now, to  be honest, I never really liked the piano.  I don’t play now.  I don’t read music, and I wasn’t inspired to write my first symphony.  But I will tell you this, after all these years, I still remember those notes, and I still remember how excited he was to show them to me.  After spending some time in middle school earth science classrooms (and a fair amount of time in classrooms in general), I think this guy was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.  It turns out that the single most important thing a teacher can do for me is to fundamentally understand and joyfully share knowledge, then let me play with it.

Is this an earth shattering paradigm?  Can you hear the choir singing as you read this?

Well, maybe not.  But for me, this was really important to realize.  I’m always working on the science, and the enthusiasm comes naturally for me, but the next step is where I hope this fellowship has really helped me.  I’m trying to learn how to pick just the right material to share what I want to share in the time I have to share it …

so that I can be the jazzy pizza guy, but with science.

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Inspiring, educating and expanding thinking

Reflection of my classroom:

High school?!

I have to say I was extremely nervous to be at a high school. I have perception of high school students to be crazy, not caring and filled with hormones that are ready to burst. I was especially worried after being at a middle school last year where a lot of the teaching time was dedicated to disciplining the students (and my teacher last year was excellent!!).  However, my experience and the students have been great, so far!

This is my second time in GK-12 and I am very happy to have Kate Parker as my teacher. She teaches chemistry and physical science at Gardner Edgerton High School. Kate is very excited to integrate inquiry based learning and tries to incorporate it into her classes.

One of the most interesting parts of the class has been the way the students are allowed to use technology! Many of the students are taking notes on their phones. They also take pictures of the board and sometimes take videos of the lessons. The second part I really enjoy is how Kate encourages her students to use the classroom for clues and help (very important skill for life). This week I saw the students taking a test in Chemistry. They were given a periodic table and a dry erase maker to write on the periodic table. They can also get up to look at the periodic table in the back of the room. Besides that Kate integrates examples that allow the students to “experience” science. In her physical science class she had the students have a “push a war” (pushing tug of war). The students pushed a table, one person on each side. This example was relating balanced and unbalanced forces. All of this was very controlled. The students were very engaged too!

I am excited to work with Kate and the students this year!

A little about me and my research:

Here are my AND, BUT, THEREFORE statements describing my research at KU (I got a little carried away). Please let me know which you like the best:

Biological materials are highly ordered, complex and tough  AND when biological materials (such as cartilage) are damaged replacement maybe necessary AND hydrogels would be an excellent replacement to tissues because hydrogels are made of primarily water (95-99% water) BUT their mechanical properties — such as brittleness or elasticity — are relatively poor and tend to be soft and fracture easily THEREFORE I am creating tough hydrogels which mimic biological materials and will provide advances to many fields, in particular tissue engineering.

Hydrogels are water loving three dimensional materials AND they can be manipulated to have unique properties. Hydrogels can be used to replace biological materials BUT manipulating hydrogels requires the understanding of the inner mechanisms in order to form improved properties (tough, elastic and non-toxic) THEREFORE I am doing research at the molecular level.

Polymers are long chain molecules and are found all around us (for example: plastic bags, hair, DNA, rubbers) AND hydrogels are interconnected polymers that love water (for example: jello, contact lenses) AND hydrogels can be created in a way to form tough networks BUT understanding how to compose hydrogels to produce strength is necessary THEREFORE I am doing research to understand the molecular mechanisms of hydrogels.

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