BEACON Researchers at Work: Bringing evolution-in-action to high school students

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work post is by MSU graduate student Anne Royer.

Anne RoyerAlong with doing great science, learning how to communicate what we discover is one of the joys and challenges of graduate study. BEACON offers exciting opportunities to explore this dimension of academic life – I joined the education team last year with the assignment of helping design the first weeklong summer BEACON experience for high school students. What better venue could there be for sharing the excitement of evolution-in-action than a full-immersion summer camp?

With all the resources of BEACON and the MSU campus at our fingertips, fellow course designer Mike Wiser and I set about constructing a program to introduce the breadth of what BEACON does. Spending half of the week at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) in southwest Michigan and half on MSU’s main campus, we gave our students a crash course in what evolution is, how we study it, and what some of the applications are. This whirlwind tour included experiencing field biology, lab work with model biological systems, tinkering with digital systems, and learning about the breadth of the field of engineering and how evolution interfaces with it. 

Students examining milkweedFor me, getting students outside to observe organisms in the context in which they evolved is one of the most thrilling parts of education. The students recruited for the summer program had interests as diverse as BEACON itself, so many of them were attracted by the engineering and had little or no experience with field biology. We wasted no time loading them on a bus and plunging them into local field sites. KBS graduate student Raffica LaRosa guided the group through a project measuring natural selection on the flowers of one of her study organisms, the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). This first field experience was punctuated with encounters with insect pollinators and a thunderstorm. For more bugs and water, we set out the following morning for Augusta Creek, where BEACON postdoc Idelle Cooper and faculty member Tom Getty let our intrepid band into hip-high water. They chased damselflies with insect nets and explored how mating behavior influences the evolution of color in these flying jewels. In addition to the fun of handling charismatic organisms and exploring their environments, the students had the chance to form their own hypotheses and predictions, see the results of the data they collected, and talk through interpreting the new information.  

Students wading in waterMy colleague Mike Wiser brought expertise with the model organism Escherichia coli and a familiarity with the incomparable long-term experiments in the Lenski lab. Almost as soon as their parents dropped them off, the students donned gloves and wielded pipettes, setting up their own rapid-evolution experiment to explore how bacteria in settled and agitated environments evolve differently. On the final morning of the week-long program, each student had a petri dish in hand to count colonies and evaluate differences in appearances. Mike was also able to show them cultures from the Lenski lab and talk them through some of the exciting results of 50,000+ generations of experimental evolution.

Students at computersOnce we had introduced the basics of how evolution by natural selection operates, the students were primed to plunge into the world of digital evolution. We chose two systems to explore how computer science interfaces with the study of evolution: the internet-based BoxCar2D and BEACON’s Avida-Ed. With clear parallels to engineering applications and video-game-like graphic user interface – evolving colorful vehicles to run on different digital “tracks” – BoxCar2D was a perfect fit for our program and a lot of fun for the students to explore. We were fortunate to have Wendy Johnson, a Michigan high school teacher who spent last summer working on integrating Avida-Ed into the classroom, to introduce our group to this instance of evolution within a computation system, and an opportunity to test evolutionary hypotheses. 

Afternoons on campus were filled with visits from Engineering faculty to learn about the diversity of fields encompassed by this department. But like any proper camp, fun was liberally sprinkled in – from laser tag to salsa dancing to a greased watermelon in a lake, we made sure the students found plenty of ways to relax together long days of engaging their minds. Our first BEACON summer high school program turned out to be a great success. Working across different BEACON fields, we taught promising young students about the exciting opportunities evolution-in-action offers to problem solvers with curious minds. We’re invested in keeping this program running, and making it better each year. We’re reaching out to additional BEACON researchers to integrate more cutting-edge work into the curriculum, and increasing the independent inquiry component of the course. Stay tuned for more developments! 

For more information, you can contact Anne at royerann at msu dot edu.

This entry was posted in BEACON Researchers at Work and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.