High School Students Discover Biodiversity Treasure Trove

Margaret Wilch takes her science students from Tucson High Magnet School into the field to experience science in the real world. (Photo: Betsy Arnold)
Margaret Wilch takes her science students from Tucson High Magnet School into the field to experience science in the real world. (Photo: Betsy Arnold)

Imagine jump-starting a career in science by discovering new species while still a teenager.

That’s exactly what Tucson High Magnet School students have done, in a science course University of Arizona associate professor Betsy Arnold developed with science teacher Margaret Wilch.

Students took their learning out of the classroom and applied it to collecting and genetically analyzing endophytes, which are symbiotic, non-harmful bacteria or fungi that live within a plant for part of its lifetime.

Their work was related to investigations Arnold and her team currently manage at the UA.

 “I realized the work we do with endophytes introduces a lot of principles of science,” Arnold said. “Setting up a research question, setting up a hypothesis and testing it with methods that are very straightforward for students to learn.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Western National Parks Association, Science Foundation Arizona and also a Partners in Science Supplement Grant from Research Corporation, Arnold and Wilch organized the course for high school students to be taught during the spring of 2012 and 2013.

Students collected and analyzed data during the 2012 course, and that data has since been used as the basis for a scientific paper expected to be published in a forthcoming issue of Fungal Ecology, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal.

“The students' discovery was so important because they discovered these new species that no one had ever recorded before,” Arnold said. “It's a biodiversity treasure trove of research questions that others can follow up on for probably a hundred years from now.”

 Arnold also said "we weren't just targeting a few honors students, or a few students at a time," noting that the work of more than 130 students in four class is represented in the paper. Involving such a sizable number of students, who were sophomore and juniors interested in biology, in active research proved to be a novel approach, Arnold said.

“We took them from the earliest stage of ‘what's a plant? What’s a fungus?’ to the final stage of analyzing sequence data,” Arnold said.

The high school students spent time in the field collecting plants at Saguaro National Park and learned how to sterilize and plate plant leaves in a lab. But their work didn’t stop there: Plates were returned to Tucson High Magnet School (THMS) where students monitored fungal growth.

Read the rest of this June 26, 2013 UANews article at the link below.

Date released: 
Jul 8 2013
Contact: 
Betsy Arnold