The topics sound like graduate projects at Virginia Tech or Johns Hopkins University – Feeding a Cow in Space and Genetic Probing and the uses in diagnosing early stage lung cancer.
But rather than the title of thesis statements at major universities, those projects were recently concluded in Hillsville by Carroll County High School students using the school’s STEM lab. Students in the Biotechnology 2 class presented the fruits of their semester-long labor May 23 at the school. Sounding more like college professors than high school kids, the CCHS students wowed those in attendance with their knowledge and results of their projects.
“They have identified the problems and have been researching and drawing plans. It’s a new way of teaching,” said Carroll County High School teacher Randy Webb, who teaches the Biotech 2 class. “If we can get them to problem solve and think on their own, when they get out of here they can take that knowledge of solving those problems and transpose them to somewhere else. It is the process of thinking, if we can get them there.”
Carroll students Dillon Golding, Nichole Redman-Huff, Erin Tate, Alexis Leonard and Bailey Patton tackled the Feeding a Cow in Space project. With the world population expected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050, there will be a scramble to feed the population of the planet. According to researchers, 10.7 percent of the world population suffers from chronic malnutrition, and yet the percentage of the population involved in farming continues to decrease.
As the world’s land and resources are used up, the need to find new ways to grow food increases every day. One solution to the problem would be to grow food in space, where there is a virtually unlimited amount of room to work. The students’ challenge was to design a 10 feet square area to grow enough food to feed the average cow for a year on a space station.
“The problem with feeding a cow in space is that water just kind of goes outward and disperses in space,” Golding said. “So we had to find a way to keep the water contained and have the plants able to still get it.”
By using a project Patton did over the summer, the student found oats and agar (a gelatinous type of seaweed) would be good methods to go at the problem.
“So we started trials in petri dishes with small amounts of agar to see if it would work, and once we realized it would work, we moved on to tubs with difference amounts of auger,” Redman-Huff said. “We thought fertilizer would help but it turns out it stunted the growth, so we axed that and we did a nutrient-free agar which is just seaweed and water.”
Each trial took seven days for the oats to fully grow. After a trip to Novozymes in Dublin, the group realized trials in petri dishes with auger helped them calculate the amount they needed to grow and how it would grow the best. By creating the agar and applying the seed, without needing to constantly water the plants or allowing them to have sunlight, the students determined the ability for growth was present to feed a cow in space for a year.
Students said Webb was there to guide them in the right direction without leading the way.
“You will ask him, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he will say, ‘I don’t know. Will that work?’ And so then we have to do another test to figure why this worked and then we start a new trial with the new information,” Redman-Huff said.
Webb said he would drop hints along the way if they started to veer of course, but the whole point is to put learning back into the students’ hands. The students said they would remember the project for a long time because they did it on their own.
“After we researched the agar idea we researched NASA and NASA was already doing it so that was kind of a disappointment to us,” Patton said, “But Randy said, ‘Well, you are thinking on that level so you should be proud.’”
Webb said it has been a struggle to get high school kids out of the thought process of thinking they will have an end-of-course test or that the teacher will always give them the answers they need to finish the class.
“When they ask you a question, you want to tell them. But also, you have to say I am not going to tell you, you have to figure that out on your own,” Webb said. “And it’s like you slap them in the face. They have always gotten that answer from a teacher and now we are asking them to figure it out on their own. We could do these projects year after year after year and I am not sure we wouldn’t get a different result every time. Even those soft skills are thrown into this. Those kids have to be able to communicate with each other, they have to work together as a team and I think that is the biggest thing that has come out of this. Their education has been so individualized all the way through high school and now you are putting them together in a group and nobody’s mind is the same. A lot of this is the same level as graduate school work.”
Another group of students consisting of Drew Reavis, Emma Thompson, Caroline Giles, Yairis Noyola and Kayla Cueva were tasked with figuring out how genetic probes are used in detecting early stage lung cancer, and how to explain that information to young children. Additionally, the group created a brochure to explain the information to children, and to create interactive models for audiences.
Lung cancer is extremely difficult to detect in Stage 1 and 2 because the symptoms – coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath – are the same symptoms of many other health problems. Reavis said using genetic probing to detect early stages of lung cancer is a major breakthrough.
“You take the DNA and you unwind it and use restriction enzymes to cut the DNA at a very specific point. We already know the gene that causes the building up of the cells that create the tumors and the mets (metastatic tumors) is the PPP2r1B gene and it is a phosphate gene which causes uncontrolled cell growth, which is what cancer is, and since we know exactly what gene that is we can take it and use restriction enzymes and cut at each particular codon in the DNA,” Reavis said.
The DNA can then be replicated in 3D machines at the high school. The DNA is then bombarded with x-rays, and if it begins to glow, the students know it is in fact cancer because it matches with the cancerous part of the DNA.
“We also had to explain lung cancer and genetic coding to a younger demographic, which is (kindergarten through fifth grade). So we had to not only tone it down to use words they could understand, but we had to remove the negative connotation behind the word cancer because it is the ‘C’ word. When you get cancer you are going to die, but it is a disease that can be treated if you catch in Stage 1 or 2.” Reavis said. “That is not the only option we have. Since we know exactly what gene is causing this specific growth of tumors and mets in the patient and we have all the knowledge of what the entire human genome is thanks to the human genome project, we can know exactly what codon and sequences there are and we can go in and take that gene and use the PCR machine to return it back to its original state and reintroduce that DNA into a cell’s nucleus and take those stem cells and replace them in a patient’s lungs. And then not only have we removed the cancer, but we put the cells back into their body, which is another way we can treat that.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN