When UC Merced Associate Professor and Sierra Foothill Charter School parent Carolin Frank was working on her grant application to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the bacteria in conifer leaves and figure out if they take nitrogen from the air and give it to the tree, she knew she wanted to include a partnership with SFCS in it. “Grants from the NSF include community and educational outreach as part of the criteria,” said Frank, who is also a Founding Member of SFCS and was a member of its board for six years.
“When we were formulating the charter school, a number of us UC Merced people who were involved talked about the possibilities of such partnerships,” said Frank. “It took a while, but it’s happened. It can be the first of many more.”
The NSF grant Frank applied for and ultimately received included a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teacher involvement program. The teacher involvement program supports active, long-term, collaborative partnerships between K-12 teachers and university faculty to enhance scientific STEM knowledge and capacity. Teachers participate in authentic summer research experiences with the scientist.
Once Frank found out she had received the grant, when it came to SFCS, the next step was to figure out which teacher and grade levels it made sense to partner with.
Part of the lesson was discussing how bacteria is everywhere - and some places more than others, including the inside of everyone’s mouths. As part of the experiment, all students were given assigned tasks. One task was for assigned students to use a special tool to gently scrape one side of their check and then the other, all the same number of times and in the same way. Paola Saldierna, one of Dr. Frank's grad students, then showed students how to swipe the instrument on the surface of one of their petri dishes to create a control sample that would be compared to samples stirred in various soaps to create samples that would test their hypotheses in the experiment.
“Fifth and sixth grade teacher Erika Miranda immediately came to mind,” said Frank. “She worked in Yosemite for a number of years before becoming a teacher. Plus, students in those grade levels are the perfect age for engaging in science experiments. They are so eager and excited about it - and they are able to follow somewhat complicated directions.”
Miranda was on board with the idea. “I loved the idea of gaining experience working in a lab and in Yosemite and knew I would have fun planning lessons that gave my students insight to this fascinating research.”
This past summer, Miranda participated in research together with Frank and Frank’s UC Merced students. Frank’s research deals with the beneficial bacteria found inside the leaves of conifer trees, and the possibility that they may be symbionts (organisms that are very closely associated with another, usually larger, organism) that provide the tree with the essential nutrient nitrogen. Over the summer, the team collected needle samples in Yosemite and processed them in Frank’s lab at UC Merced.
Based on these experiences, Miranda has led collaborative curriculum development with Frank and some of her UC Merced students.
SFCS students Lily Grauman, Jaeyanna Bolar, and Rhu Jones work together to wrap a protective parafilm stip around a petri dish with a sample in it to keep out contaminants.
“It’s a perfect partnership,” said Miranda. “I couldn’t do alone what they do as scientists working in the field and they couldn’t alone do what I do, breaking it down and preparing lessons for the fifth and sixth grade classroom.”
The curriculum is being built into several hands-on lessons taught by Miranda, Frank, and Frank’s UC Merced students in the fifth and sixth grade classroom throughout this school year. The first lessons are happening now and include experiments on whether or not antibacterial soap is more effective in killing bacteria than regular soap.
Before an experiment begins, Miranda and Frank talk to students about what they are studying and ask students to formulate hypotheses and predictions. They then take students through the experiments, step-by-step. Students write their hypotheses, predictions, observations, and results in their science notebooks.
SFCS students Weston Frazer, Tyler Knauf, Conner Eastwood, and Wyatt Brouillette all have a hand on the experiment. Tyler, second from left, is stirring a tool containing cells from Wyatt’s cheek into one of the soaps the students are testing. Another of this group will be in charge of the next step.
“Some of the results have been surprising,” said Miranda. “We will talk about them and the reasons why maybe some things did not turn out as expected.” It’s all part of the learning process. And students are reminded that scientists test things many, many times to make sure their results
“Students love all of the scientific tools they get to use,” said Miranda. “They can’t wait to see a real lab.”
Students will get to see a UC Merced lab in the spring when Frank and her students will host them on campus for some activities.
The goal of this collaboration is for fifth and sixth grade students to gain first-hand experience of the concept of scientific inquiry, microbial symbiosis (associations between plants or animals and friendly bacteria), its significance in benefiting plants during climate change, and the overall benefits of bacteria in our bodies and environment.
It is a wonderful learning opportunity for all involved. Frank is confident it is the first of many such collaborations between UC Merced scientists and SFCS.
After a few days, students could see bacteria growing inside the petri dishes. Some of the results were surprising. Frank, Miranda, and students talked about the results and the reasons why maybe some things did not turn out as expected and why scientists run the same tests many times to make sure they are getting accurate readings. It’s all part of the learning process.