About the author: This post is written by John Siefert, who teaches Biology and Agriculture courses at Conrad Weiser High School in Robesonia, Pennsylvania. Not deterred by the lack of funding for their lab; the school's rural location; or the lack of prior required training, John and his colleagues have built a state of the art high school biology and agriscience laboratory in their high school. Conrad students are not only gaining real-world and advanced research skills but also excelling at national and international science competitions.

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Background

John Siefert I started my teaching career nine years ago after graduating from The Pennsylvania State University. I was hired by Conrad Weiser High School in Robesonia, Pennsylvania, shortly after graduating, to teach biology and agricultural science courses. The public high school, located about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, has roughly 900 students.

Looking back at the start of my career, I felt unprepared to teach many of the subjects that I was asked to teach. I think many science and agricultural science teachers can relate to this sentiment. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in Agricultural and Extension Education, a minor in biology, and a little research experience in the Plant Science Department. I was quickly overwhelmed by my lack of content knowledge and hands-on laboratory experience required for the courses I was teaching.

How to acquire the advanced biology skills and knowledge for free?

I’ve spent my summers attending free teacher workshops1 across the United States, ever since I joined Conrad High, to improve my knowledge and skill in the fields of molecular biology and microbiology. During those workshops, I found a passion for learning and teaching molecular biology. An unexpected benefit of those workshops was building a close network of motivated science teachers. The majority of teachers participating in summer workshops are doing so to bring cutting-edge techniques back to their students. As a bonus, many of these workshops provide Continuing Education Credits for certification requirements or even graduate credit.

How did we raise money for equipping our laboratory?

Speaking with many attendees at summer workshops, one of the most significant hurdles to teaching molecular biology in the classroom is inadequate facilities and instruments. At Conrad Weiser, it has been a slow process to obtain the equipment that we now have today. Near the start of my career, I found it useful to create an “Equipment Wishlist.” Each year I tried to purchase smaller items from my wishlist to expand the capabilities of the lab. More recently, I’ve worked with colleagues to form connections with community members and local businesses. We try to bring community members into school whenever possible to see students in action. Whenever possible, we ask for help mentoring students or making a donation of equipment or money. Asking for donations can be uncomfortable, but it is important to advocate for students. Having a wishlist and clear goals for the future makes it easier to capitalize when we hear the question, “what do these students need?” or “how can we help?” Last summer, a donation from a community member allowed us to purchase our Chai Open qPCR machine.

Biology and Agriscience Lab at Conrad

What're the benefits of incorporating qPCR and other advanced biology concepts in high school?

I’ve spent the last eight years implementing the content, and laboratory skills learned in summer workshops into my curriculum at Conrad Weiser. Students have consistently blown me away by their ability to grasp and master some of the more challenging concepts and techniques. I firmly believe that by providing students with quality equipment, holding high expectations, and allowing students to ask their own meaningful questions, they can surpass what they (and others) think is possible of a high school student. This mindset has sparked tremendous interest in our student community to the point where the school day is no longer adequate to meet the demands of our students. My colleagues Adelle Schade, Adam Serfass, and I started the Conrad Weiser Science Research Institute (CWSRI) three years ago, a non-profit organization with the goal of promoting independent student research after school and during the summer, to address the growing interest in scientific research.

Chai Open qPCR in Conrad lab

The progress and accomplishments that our students have made during the past few years have been inspirational. It is expected that the highest achieving students would thrive in this type of environment, but we were surprised and delighted when students of all abilities started embracing independent research, participating in the scientific community of CWSRI, and finding success in research competitions. Along the way, we have had fantastic support from parents, school administrators, and local businesses/organizations.

Today, a visit to the labs at Conrad Weiser is usually greeted with signs of student activity. Whether before school, during class time, after school, or over the summer, independent student research is actively ongoing. Many of our students have found a passion for cell and tissue culture. They are particularly fond of Drosophila microdissection and establishing cell lines in culture. Other students have found their passion for materials science and are researching novel uses of the bioactive glass. A small group of students is 3D bioprinting with different matrix types to explore regenerative medicine. In the greenhouse, students are currently investigating the effectiveness of Willow cultivars in absorbing excess nutrients from runoff. Their hard work has earned our students local, national, and even international attention. In recent years, Conrad Weiser agriculture students have won honors at the National FFA AgriScience Fair, including 1st place in the Animal Systems Category and 3rd place in the Food Systems Category in 2017. We’ve also been fortunate to qualify students for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) each of the last three years. In May, three Conrad Weiser students will compete at ISEF in Pittsburgh after winning the top three spots at the local Reading Berks Science and Engineering Fair. Some of the most exciting research at Conrad Weiser is in molecular biology thanks to Chai’s Open qPCR.

Chai Open qPCRDuring the summer of 2017, we purchased Chai’s Open qPCR Dual Channel Thermocycler. Before the purchase of Chai’s qPCR thermocycler, students learned traditional PCR in my classes using an outdated, donated thermal cycler. It was exciting to incorporate traditional PCR into the curriculum and research projects, but the older design was not intuitive for students to use, did not visualize the process of PCR for students, and was too slow to utilize during the regular school day. With Open qPCR, students can set up PCR reactions from their computers/devices and monitor thermal profiles during the denaturing, annealing, and extending stages. The ability to save results in the form of tables and graphs allows students to interpret their results and incorporate them into reports easily. Like other laboratory techniques that I taught at the beginning of my career, the use of traditional PCR is declining in molecular labs. With Open qPCR, I feel confident that my students will be better prepared for college and beyond. On top of that, students have been able to ask questions and conduct research that was impossible with traditional PCR.

A few months ago, Chai wrote a blog post on two Conrad Weiser students that used Open qPCR to study impurities in herbal teas. Since that time, students have used qPCR to search for Toxoplasma gondii prevalence and abundance in cat litter and Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis infections (the fungal pathogen responsible for Chytridiomycosis) in local amphibians. Soon, we are planning to use qPCR to perform pathogen quantification in water and food samples. While there are serious safety concerns involved with culturing pathogenic organisms with students, extracting DNA and performing qPCR removes much of this risk. Another student recently used Open qPCR to conduct a forensic decomposition study in which he successfully isolated decomposing pig tissue from the digestive tracts of scavenging Sarcophaga bullata (Grey Flesh Fly) larva. His future goal is to demonstrate the use of qPCR as a cost-effective technique in forensic DNA analysis. There are seemingly endless applications of Open qPCR in student research.

My Closing Thoughts

While I am proud of the fantastic things happening at Conrad Weiser High School, we are not much different than most of the schools in rural/suburban United States. By putting cutting-edge equipment like Open qPCR into the hands of students and allowing them the freedom to ask their own questions, great things can happen at schools anywhere. All that is needed are science teachers that are unafraid to venture beyond their comfort zones and encourage and support student research.

[1]: List Of Teacher Learning Workshops

Research Teacher Conference, hosted by Society for Science and the Public

K-12 Science and Math Teacher Workshop, hosted by Saint Bonaventure University

Summer Bioinformatics Workshop for High School Teachers, hosted by University of Maryland

Summer Teacher Institute, hosted by the Genetic Science Learning Center

Summer Research Program for Teachers, hosted by the American Association of Immunologists

Cornell Institute for Biology Teachers, hosted by Cornell University

Summer Educator Workshops, hosted by the DNA Learning Center

BioTeach Summer Institute, hosted by Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation

Biotechnology Workshops, hosted by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center

Molecular Biology Summer Workshop, hosted by Princeton University