Prosser High School students will get a taste of scientific research next year thanks to a $5,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust in Vancouver and $2,000 in matching funds from the school district.
Biology teacher Aaron Sonnichsen and his students will use the money to raise a species of roundworm and study its genetics.
School and district officials lauded the news, noting science- and technology-related fields have increasingly become part of the economic future of the region and state.
For Sonnichsen, who taught a few lessons with students this past fall with the roundworms, it’s a new tool to make scientific discovery real and tangible.
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“They just loved it, you can take these worms and see how they change,” Sonnichsen said.
Sonnichsen, who also is a Prosser High graduate, has worked with the Murdock Trust and its Partners in Science program since 2013. The organization works to get science teachers who haven’t had much research experience out into the field.
When I was in high school, it was looking at organisms (and comparing them). Now it’s at the molecular level.
Prosser biology teacher Aaron Sonnichsen
He worked with a researcher based at Washington State University’s Prosser research station during the summer of 2014 on a study looking at how rerouting Highway 12 could affect bee populations and alfalfa operations. He conducted some genetic research with a doctorate student this past summer.
This latest grant, one of 12 awarded throughout the Pacific Northwest, is intended to help teachers who’ve previously done research with the trust’s help bring that work back into the classroom.
It’s hard to raise and work with bees in a classroom, Sonnichsen said, but he still wanted to do something on genetic expression. That’s how he landed on the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a popular model organism used by researchers.
C. elegans has had its genetic code fully sequenced and it shares a number of genetic markers with humans, Sonnichsen said, such as similar genes controlling insulin production.
Students will be able to manipulate the worms’ genes and see what happens when genes are turned on or off.
“When I was in high school, it was looking at organisms (and comparing them),” he said. “Now it’s at the molecular level.”
Getting a number of the roundworms isn’t all Sonnichsen and his students will need, though. The grant will also pay for digital cameras that can be affixed to microscopes so students can document their findings. They’ll also be able to use iPads to record video of the roundworms over time. Machines needed to look at genetic sequences will also be purchased.
We’re encouraging kids to challenge themselves.
Kevin Lusk, Prosser High School principal
While the roundworms could have a role in Sonnichsen’s general biology class lessons, they’re more likely to be a big part of his Advanced Placement biology class, he said.
Principal Kevin Lusk said the school has made an effort to increase AP course offerings in recent years, noting that AP English will be available next year and there are plans to eventually offer AP chemistry.
“We’re encouraging kids to challenge themselves,” Lusk said.
That’s easier said than done. More than 30 students took AP biology at Prosser High when it was first offered during the 2014-15 academic year, but less than half that number are taking the course this year, Sonnichsen said.
Offering a unique research experience may help change that.
“Hopefully we’ll see more of a spike next year,” Sonnichsen said.