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UGA grad students pair with high school teachers

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

When it comes to science education, U.S. students don't reflect the superpower status of their homeland. But a new program at the University of Georgia addresses some of science education's biggest challenges.

Compared with their peers in 38 other countries, U.S. students rank in the ho-hum middle, between Bulgaria and New Zealand in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

To improve that, "The Science Behind Our Food," funded by a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant, pairs 10 UGA graduate teaching fellows with 10 Georgia high school teachers.

Together, they will create a high school science curriculum centering on something everybody can relate to: food.

Last week, UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences announced the 10 NSF graduate teaching fellows, with fields ranging from stem cell research to aquatic toxicology to environmental engineering.

"A major goal of this grant is to train scientific professionals as communicators," said David Knauft, associate CAES dean and a key developer of the program.

"Pairing each graduate fellow with a high school teacher," he said, "ensures that the fellow will learn how to communicate ideas and set up experiments that are accessible to both teachers and their students."

It's a worthy goal, said Rodney Nash, a Ph.D. student in animal and dairy sciences and a newly appointed graduate fellow in the program.

"For a lot of people, science is as incomprehensible as Frankenstein's lab," Nash said. "And a lot of scientists don't help the situation. They make it more complicated than it has to be."

Nash's doctoral work at UGA focuses on embryonic stem cell research in humans and mice.

"There's still a great deal about stem cells that we don't know," he said. "How do we make them turn into what we want them to turn into? That's the mystery right now."

In his graduate studies, Nash works "with some of the most distinguished scientists in the world ... Steve Stice, Steve Dalton, Cliff Baile," he said. "This program will make their work accessible to high school students. We're planning to videotape some of the experiments."

Through the program, high school students will be exposed to the latest technology through the graduate fellows and the professors who guide the fellows' studies.

"Many of these scientists are working on research that has direct applications on the food we eat," Knauft said. "They're sequencing the genomes of Georgia's major crops, cloning livestock, developing new breeds of pecans or techniques for detecting genetically modified organisms in food. It's cutting- edge science."

The program starts July 9, when all 10 teaching fellows and 10 high school teachers begin a two-week crash course on some of the most current research UGA has to offer, touring facilities in Athens, Griffin and Tifton.

Nash will present his research on stem cells during this time.

"There is so much controversy with stem cells and cloning," he said. "I would like to clarify some ideas and talk about the ethical and moral principles involved. Some people think we get these cells from aborted fetuses, which is totally not true."

As for learning how to communicate complex scientific principles to regular folks, Nash says he has a great teacher.

"I explain everything I'm working on to my grandmother, who is 74," he said. "I know if I can break it down so she can understand it, I'm doing a good job."

The other graduate fellows are Vedas Burkeen, food science and technology; Anna Cathey, environmental engineering; Emily Duff, animal and dairy science and nutrition; Eva Daneke, environmental health science; Juanita Forrester, entomology; Jackie Hoffman, poultry science; Jeremy Peacock, aquatic toxicology; Amy Rowley, food science and technology; and Christopher Wildman, ruminant nutrition.

(Cat Holmes is a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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