Grants pay for Tri-City science teachers to conduct research

Chiawana teacher Kentin Alford, left, is guided in a research lab by Battelle scientist Heather Brewer on his second day at PNNL in Richland.
Chiawana teacher Kentin Alford, left, is guided in a research lab by Battelle scientist Heather Brewer on his second day at PNNL in Richland. Tri-City Herald

Kentin Alford is no stranger to a science lab, but his first two days working with a researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have tested his memory.

The Chiawana High School agricultural science teacher worked Thursday on pipetting — using a tool to dispense fluids for experiments — with research scientist Heather Brewer.

He performed a similar task when he worked as a material scientist, but that was years ago and he was a bit rusty.

“It’s kind of like trying to ride a bicycle again,” Alford said.

Alford is one of 11 Tri-City teachers working with researchers at PNNL, Washington State University Tri-Cities or WSU’s Prosser research station with the help of $165,000 in grant funding from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, based in Vancouver, Wash. The money will enable the teachers to work with the scientists for the next two summers.

Intended to give science teachers a real taste of research, the program also aims to help those teachers bring that research to their classrooms to share techniques and the processes of scientific inquiry.

And while there’s a clear benefit for teachers and their students, there are some tangible and intangible upsides for researchers as well.

“Often researchers tell me it takes them back to what got them excited about science,” said Anne Wright-Mockler, PNNL’s senior STEM education consultant. “We consider it community engagement. It’s definitely community service.”

The trust’s Partners in Science program awarded a total of 29 grants this year, each worth $15,000. Along with conducting research and integrating that work back into their classrooms, grant recipients present their findings at regional and national conferences after each summer in the lab.

PNNL has welcomed teachers into its labs before for temporary assignments with researchers, but this summer is particularly busy. Seven teachers from Tri-City schools are working on everything from fish biology to plant proteins, the latter being Alford’s research topic.

More specifically, the Chiawana High teacher will investigate sorghum plants, how they function and how they can be made hardier. He’ll study soil, the bacteria and fungi that live in it, and how they affect the plants.

“We’re looking at the whole system, not just the organism,” Brewer said.

Alford wants to take what he learns this summer back to his students to show them “agricultural science isn’t just farming,” he said. You can be a scientist working in a bright, technology-loaded lab and still help put food on tables.

Kamiakin High School biology teacher Amy Verderber has similar aspirations to inspire her students. She’s working with a WSU Tri-Cities scientist on research examining how a thyroid hormone affects skull development and jaw function in fish.

“We do a section on ecology and I think my students would love seeing how fish can be affected,” Verderber said. “I just think it’s something very cool that’s not textbook-based.”

While the researchers do have to train lab procedures and details of the research, the teachers are an extra set of hands in the lab to get work done during a time of year when labs tend to be understaffed, Wright-Mokler said.

The teachers at PNNL, with the help of the Murdock grants, are special because they teach in the figurative backyard of the national lab’s researchers. That opens up more possibilities for future collaboration and for the scientists to visit with the teachers’ students, something Brewer said is of critical value.

“A lot of times kids just need to see there’s a regular, average person doing the science,” she said. “They can do this, too.”

Tri-City Murdock grant recipients

▪ Kentin Alford, Chiawana High School

▪ Frederick Burke, Chiawana High School

▪ Robert Edrington, Southridge High School

▪ Randy Hoover, Southridge High School

▪ Emily Jordan, Chiawana High School

▪ Trevor Macduff, Three Rivers HomeLink

▪ Devin Olson, New Horizons High School

▪ Carolyn Sturges, Three Rivers HomeLink

▪ Molly Tunistra, Pasco High School

▪ Amy Verderber, Kamiakin High School

▪ John Weisenfeld, Pasco High School