High school phage hunters: an experiment to encourage young scientists

This post is by MSU postdoc Sarah Doore, with contributions from Dr. Kristin Parent and Mr. Kevin Schrad

For the last couple years, our lab at MSU has been advocating “phage hunting” as part of the biology classroom experience. Bacteriophages—”phages” for short—are viruses that infect bacteria. To hunt phages, all you have to do is think about where a phage might be (usually anywhere you can find bacteria), scoop up a handful of water or dirt, then test your sample to see whether it infects certain strains of bacteria. Phage hunting is a great way to get students thinking about the microbial world and to help them relate to science and the scientific process.

I’ve written about a few of our adventures here and here, but thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation, we provided equipment and expertise to a Nebraska high school, Lincoln Southwest (LSW).

Jason Schrad explaining some of the lab techniques to the high school class

Students getting ready to check their samples for phage. Can you spot the class mascot?

This past April, my labmate Jason Schrad and I visited LSW in person. We helped our teacher-partner, Mr. Kevin Schrad, set up the equipment and walked him through the procedure. We explained bacteriophages to the students, discussed where they might be found, then went out and collected some samples from the local environment. We then worked with them to plate their samples and analyze their results. We did this for two classes for a full week, moving through each step of the scientific process along with them.

Spoiler alert: we didn’t find many phages.

This was a huge surprise to everyone, considering how many we found last semester. But we all thought the experience was awesome—phage or no phage! And hey, that’s how science goes sometimes. You always learn something from your experiments even if your starting hypothesis didn’t turn out to be 100% accurate.

Mr. Schrad said, “The Phage Hunting Experiment is a huge success for my classes. My students enjoyed doing what they called ‘real science.’ I know it sounds funny but they liked using the ‘real science’ equipment, especially the vortexers. [side note: evidence for this claim is here] The students enjoyed the hands-on experience and working with real scientists. They enjoyed being able to see the outcome of their work even if they didn’t find any phages.”

Another teacher at the school, Mr. Charley Bittle, was enthusiastic to meet us and see the process. Now he’s going to incorporate phage hunting into some of the other biology classes at LSW.

Mr. Schrad getting a sample from Iggy, the classroom iguana.

Partway through the week our lab leader, Dr. Parent, did a Skype session with both classrooms. This gave the students a chance to explain what they’d found and to ask more questions about a career in science.

Of the experience, Dr. Parent said, “One of the most profound things I experienced was when the girl in the second section who asked me: ‘what happens if scientists mess up?’ I started thinking that a student’s entire focus up until graduate school is to get the answer correct (at least in most STEM courses). So the idea that a hypothesis could be wrong, or that sometimes we don’t really know how to do it right the first time, is something we should prepare students for.

“Fear of not being 100% perfect is the killer for successful science. It’s good to teach the students that not everything works like the positive control every time and that’s ok (actually, troubleshooting can even be part of the fun). Negative results are sometimes very interesting, and we often need to re-evaluate our models/predictions, which means redesign and retesting.”

But you don’t have to take our word for how great this experience is. At the end of the semester, the students filled out an exit survey, which pinpointed what they found most interesting and valuable in the class. Here are three of the questions from the survey and a sampling of the responses:

Describe how the phage hunting experience made a difference in your understanding of biology and science in general:

“It helped me understand what it truly means to ask questions and test things in science.”

“It made it more exciting and made us able to interact with [microbial] wildlife that we never would’ve interacted with before.”

“This made me think about how there could be viruses in almost anything in the world around you.”

“It opened my mind”

“It gave us a chance to look at what real scientists do.”

What long-term benefits could the phage hunting (viruses) project provide to you?

“It gives me something to look back on in the future and make me remember all the things I saw that I’ve never seen or knew existed before.”

“I think it could provide a better understanding of the micro level of this planet.”

“It could show me a possible career to go into.”

“It could help you to see if you want to go into that kind of science thing.”

“It made me more interested in it.”

What skills have you gained from the phage hunting project that may help you become a better student, scientist or citizen?

“It made me realize that being patient brings good things” – similarly, “to be patient while waiting for the results.”

“I learned how to work with others in my class, how to investigate things, and how to use the equipment.”

“It made me think more deeply about questions and to go out and search and experience.”

“Always taking notes on what I did so that if I were to go back to it in like 12 months that I would know what I was doing.” [totally agree with this!]

We’ll keep hunting phage in the future, though next time we could encourage students to sample from their own home or neighborhood and then compare that to what they found at the high school. The more classes we do this with, the more we’ll refine our methods and strengthen the partnership between university and high school.

“As we go through the techniques more it begins to be a bigger part of our curriculum,” said Mr. Schrad. “Having real scientists leading the project and actually being part of the process has a tremendous impact on how the students view the project. If we spark the interest to go into science of just one student it is a worthy accomplishment.”

Interested in trying this for your college or high school class? Feel free to talk to us on Twitter @Phage4Lyfe or visit the Parent lab website, which includes video protocols for phage isolation.

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