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Pieces of Eight

D.H. Conley High School student Janay Braxton participates in an experiment at ECU’s biology lab. Conley students learned to idenfity DNA in summer visits to ECU labs. (Contributed photo)

Partnership Brings College Biology to High School

By Erica Plouffe Lazure

An East Carolina University biologist has brought his lectures and experiments into the laboratory of students at D.H. Conley High School.

John Stiller, a professor of biology at ECU, teamed up with biology teacher Karen Powell to offer her advanced placement students an opportunity to conduct research and learn how to sequence and identify DNA.

The collaboration developed out of a $658,000 grant Stiller received in 2002 from the National Science Foundation. The grant emphasizes teaching and research.

“There is no way a high school could have the resources for a sequencing facility,” Stiller said. “These tools are every bit as reliable in the hands of introductory students — with some training — as they are in the hands of graduate researchers. That is what the university-high school partnership is all about.”

ECU biology professor John Stiller (left) gave D.H. Conley students and their parents a tour of ECU’s biology research labs June 3. (Photo by Nancy McGillicuddy)

Stiller observed that historically, educational science experiments offered no real opportunity for genuine discovery. He sought to design an experiment that would enable students to ask and investigate questions about their world.

This year’s high school group consisted of 14 students who studied microbes within soil. Students swabbed various environments to find microbes and then isolated DNA from each microbe.

“Then they matched the sequence in the database bank and investigated the organism they found,” Stiller said.

For example, students swabbed a particle of soil from the school track, and then, with help from Stiller’s lab, turned a microbe-sized particle into a chain of readable DNA. Reading the code, the students put the information into a national databank to determine what microbe had been grown.

Stiller said it is important for scientists to help introductory-level students conduct genuine discovery-based experiments using the latest technology in equipment for DNA sequencing.

“What we’re supposed to be doing in science is to educate for the benefit of the world around us,” he said.

Stiller said the students’ interest was high.

“These techniques are usually not taught to college freshman,” he said. “But the level of interest is typically higher in these classes than in freshman biology classes.”

The students and their parents visited ECU to receive an overview of the project and to tour ECU’s Genomics Core Facility and research labs.

Powell and Stiller said many of the students are on their way to college and are interested in studying medicine. “Maybe this will spark something with someone down the road,” Powell said.

This page originally appeared in the July 28, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at