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Sharing Scientific Wonders

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Students in the science classroom
Congdon Elementary fifth graders Miraeya Pasley and Hanna Frestedt study the life-cycle of a moth, from egg to caterpillar, to pupa, to adult. UMD senior Mitch Johnson explains how caterpillars change appearance as they grow and change skins.

Undergraduates Earn Their (Zebrafish) Stripes

A student looks at luminous zebra fish under a black blanket.
Sierra Hayden, a fifth grader, ducks under a blanket and looks at luminous zebrafish using a blacklight. The topic of this lesson is fluorescence.
students look at fish. University of minnesota Duluth
UMD student Amelia Anderson shows fish to Congdon Elementary students Jazmin Reek, Elizabeth Packer and Mikal Grotte during a recent visit to the schools.
Professor Jennifer Liang with caterpillars.
Associate Professor Jennifer Liang helped her biology class prepare lessons for K-12 classrooms. This lesson uses caterpillars and teaches the concept of metamorphosis.

UMD Biology Department Associate Professor Jennifer Liang has a reputation for giving meaningful, real-world projects and research to undergraduates and graduate students alike. She juggles a full teaching load, her own research, and lots of side projects.

For the first time this spring semester, Liang invited one of her classes to leave the lab and spread their scientific knowledge to young students throughout the northland.

A Class of Teachers
Liang’s Outreach to the K-12 Science Classroom course turns undergraduates into temporary teachers. Seven undergraduates spent Fridays throughout the semester leading hands-on demonstrations for several grades from kindergarten to high school. In fact, one of the classes was high school seniors in an advanced placement biology class.

“None of my students are in the UMD education department,” Liang said. “They just feel a strong commitment to helping the community, and they love working with children.” The students have taken their "fish and pony show" to more than a dozen classrooms in a variety of schools in Duluth and the surrounding area.

These undergraduate teachers set up demonstrations appropriate to each grade level, providing students with a hands-on connection to life forms. Senior Mitch Johnson and his peers enjoy conducting the demonstrations. "Bringing animals into the classroom is a great experience for both the students and us. The students get excited to see what creatures we have to show them," Johnson said.

Stations are set up, each with a theme, and children rotate from table to table. In a fifth grade classroom for instance, themes included phenotype, fluorescence, inheritance, and metamorphosis. Exclamations filled the room as second-graders stuck their heads under a black cloth and used a black light to light up fluorescent zebrafish. A few squeals were heard as the second-graders handled caterpillars and moths at various stages of development. Everyone was excited by the experiments.

Spreading the Joy of Science
Back in early February, the college students enjoyed the first school session so much, they doubled their school visit schedule. They were getting so much out of the community service portion of the class that they wanted to reach out to as many schools as they could.

"This class helped reinforce my understanding of genetics, but also showed me that teaching can be fun," said senior Jayce Brown.

Senior Amelia Anderson gained valuable skills. "This course has been by far the best for skyrocketing my teaching and oral presentation skills. Outreach really challenges your ability to adapt to situations of explaining new concepts to students. It might sound cheesy, but the most rewarding experience was seeing K-12 students eager to learn about science and comprehend what you've just taught them. "

Liang isn’t surprised that students feel this way. “The goal of all science teachers is to share the wonder," she said. "There's nothing like that first moment of discovery, when everything falls into place." Liang admits she was shy right through grade school and into college. In graduate school, when she started teaching herself, she found herself reacting very positively to her students' discoveries. "Spreading that feeling of discovery and seeing it happen for others is part of the reason that I became a professor," she said. She enjoys seeing her Science Classroom Outreach students revel in their teaching roles. "Working in the K-12 schools allows them to experience how it feels to spread the excitement of science to others.”

Senior Ally Kingsbury traces her love of science back to high school. "I had an amazing biology teacher in high school. Everything he said seemed to click and make perfect sense. He made me want to know more about biology."

Liang's Many Hats
In addition to working with the students on their K-12 science teaching project, Liang teaches biology using her own zebrafish research field as the basis for the class. Outside of class, she is conducting a National Institute of Health research project with 10 undergraduate and three graduate student working as paid researchers. Liang’s laboratory is doing basic research that is uncovering new genes involved in development of the vertebrate nervous system.

AND THERE'S MORE! Liang also juggles three additional significant endeavors.

  • First, the website. Liang and her students have a Zebrafish in the Classroom website that is accessed around the world.
  • Second, her Developmental Biology class has conducted a research project that has yielded some startling results. So startling, the entire class will become authors of a paper published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
  • Third, Liang is part of a collaborative effort to create Duluth Journal of Undergraduate Biology (DJUB), a new journal that will publish original, peer-reviewed articles by UMD undergraduate students. The first issue of this journal will come out in summer 2014.

From A to Zebrafish — the Website .
Liang and her students’ love of spreading knowledge and discovery in the classroom is now being applied more widely via the Zebrafish in the Classroom website. “Almost all of the content on the website has been generated by undergraduate students,” Liang detailed. One of her website’s projects, the ‘casanova’ experiment, will be demonstrated live at an upcoming Society for Developmental Biology meeting. The experiment may be conducted live in the classroom or (like many on the site) may be replicated using data and video available, free of charge, directly from the Zebrafish in the Classroom website.

Undergraduate Research in the Classroom
Students in Liang’s undergraduate developmental biology class have been presented a unique opportunity to conduct original research. They took a problem that has never been studied in quite this way before. They compared the regeneration of striped fish tail fins to spotted (mutant) fish tail fins and got some surprising results. “As developmental biologists, we are interested in how patterns form. For instance, we ask how our body knows where to place arms, legs and the exact location of our fingers. A good way to start tackling these issues is through pigment patterns. In our case, we chose the stripes and spots of zebrafish,” Liang said.

Zebrafish regenerate their adult tissues very well, replacing even damaged heart tissue with relative ease. It is also common knowledge that zebrafish with injured tail fins regenerate stripes in the exact same position as before. But there is no literature to prove the same thing for spotted tail fins on mutant zebrafish. “The students recorded tail patterns and removed parts of zebrafish tails," said Liang. "When they measured the spots on the regenerated tissues, they found that zebrafish tails which have regenerated do not have spots in the exact same location — even the number varies." This variation suggests that there is not a simple mechanism that controls how many spots form or where they form. Since the same fish had different patterns in their original and regenerated tail fins, there may even be environmental or random factors that are influencing the placement of the spots. The student research will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and students that were part of the class will be credited as authors.

Creating an Undergraduate Biology Journal
Liang is also part of another unique collaborative endeavor. A group of undergraduate students in writing studies and biology are publishing their research in the Duluth Journal of Undergraduate Biology (DJUB), an open-access, online and peer reviewed journal. The chief editors are undergraduate students Anthony Schmitt and Lance Boedigheimer. The students in the class are designing the layout of the website, home page, and journal articles. They are also serving as the editorial board, peer-reviewers, and authors of the papers that will be published (on d.commons) in the first issue of the journal. Liang, along with Shixing Wen in the UMD Library, David Beard and Elizabethada Wright of the Department of Writing Studies, and Shannon Stevenson of the Department of Biology are serving as advisors and collaborators to the students as they create the journal.

Liang said the journal prepares students of biology for success at the professional level. "Students are learning about the process involved to produce a professional scientific publication," she said. "This journal will bring student initiated scientific research and analysis to a broad audience." Whether they take the class for biology credit or for writing studies credit, the students in the class get a taste of the publishing world.


Written by Zach Lunderberg, May 2014.

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