Schools Offer Specialized Science

Students at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School, a conservation biology magnet school in Miami, Florida, conduct botanical research in this state-of-the-art lab. Photo: FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

Students at BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School, a conservation biology magnet school in Miami, Florida, conduct botanical research in this state-of-the-art lab. Photo: FAIRCHILD TROPICAL BOTANIC GARDEN

To motivate students to learn science, some schools are expanding the range of their courses. While at Mission Heights Preparatory High School in Casa Grande, Arizona, biology teacher Robert Gay created a paleontology program after he told his students about his training and work in paleontology, and they “felt my passion for it and were really intrigued by it,” he relates. The program, which began with one course in 2014, grew to four courses, including a two-week summer field course.

“Paleontology is a good way to engage kids in science. Kids like fossils and dinosaurs, and they want to know what is true and what isn’t: [They ask,] ‘Is Jurassic Park real?’,” he maintains, adding, “you can talk about physics, biology, and chemistry through a lens they’re already interested in.”

Paleontology is “a practical science” because “it’s the only way to know about the past…To make decisions about the future, you have to look at the past,” he observes. His students were exposed to paleoclimate data, which can help them understand climate change. “Students will understand the impacts of policy decisions,” he contends.

He also taught students how microscopic fossils help locate oil and how scars on dinosaur fossils can answer questions such as “Were their digestive systems able to process what they ate? Could a T-Rex eat you?” Students learned that many paleontologists teach at medical schools because physicians have to understand “how bones have changed,” he notes.

In his Paleontology 1 course, students learned “the history of paleontology and the history of life on Earth,” Gay explains. In Paleontology 2, they studied the techniques of paleontology, such as determining the ages of fossils. “In both courses, students [got] to apply their skills in the field,” he points out.

Students in Advanced Paleontology “do research projects that will result in publications. I want them to work on projects that can be published in a peer-reviewed journal,” Gay asserts. He has had three students write about topics including “the first appearance of a species and the abundance of species in an area.”

He continues, “I’ve seen students who have issues with reading and writing get emotionally invested in these papers. They want to understand the scientific vocabulary and produce a good and professional paper. Their literacy skills are on the rise.”

The application process to attend the summer field school was very competitive. “We take five to six students to south Utah for two weeks. It’s a really intensive camp,” he notes. Students had to pass the other three courses and submit a letter of interest and letters of recommendation. “It’s preferred that they have taken Earth science and biology as well,” he adds. “We’ve collected more than 300 specimens,” he reports. “My students made amazing finds this summer,” such as a dinosaur tooth from the Triassic period.

Safety, Transportation

One challenge Gay faced with the field portion of these courses was “most of the students have never even been camping before. They ask, ‘How will I go to the bathroom? How will I groom myself ?’” He answers all of their questions and covers field safety in the Paleontology 1 course. In addition, “we have briefings at the beginning of each field session on dehydration and [the need for] sunscreen use…Students are trained not to panic if trapped by a flash flood,” for example, he reports.

Gay and adult volunteers were certified in first aid and CPR; every vehicle had a first-aid kit. Adults kept students in visual range and carried cell phones.

Back in the lab, students wore safety goggles and ear protection when using the air scribe, which Gay describes as “a mini jackhammer that removes rock from fossils.” To protect against dust, “we have a fan and open-air ventilation,” he notes. “Our chemical use is very limited [because] we don’t have a fume hood, so students work with vinegar in a separate room.”

Gay’s other major challenge—and expense—was transportation to field sites because school buses were too large. “We had a pickup truck donated, but we need[ed] a new vehicle. When we go to Utah, it’s 600 miles one way, and we [would] have to rent SUVs and minivans.” Though Gay obtained grant funding for his courses, students had to pay for transportation expenses. He would offer financial aid to students who couldn’t afford the fees.

The paleontology program was “a lot of work, but very much worth it,” Gay concludes. Since most of Mission Heights’ students come from low-income families for whom travel is a luxury, “they get to see sights and do things they normally couldn’t do. Their parents really like that,” he observes. “My students are doing well and getting noticed by colleges. [The program gave] them the chance to do something that improves their future—even if they don’t go into science.”

Next Generation Botanists

In Florida, the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden of Coral Gables worked with Zoo Miami and Miami-Dade County Public Schools to establish BioTECH @ Richmond Heights High School, a conservation biology magnet school that offers the first botanical field research program in the nation, along with a zoology program. “There’s a growing need for people with a background in botany [because] the botany community worldwide is aging out,” says Amy Padolf, Fairchild’s director of education. “It’s harder to find botany instructors because in Miami schools, not enough students are interested in botany. [The botany program was established because] if kids get the interest early, they’ll want to study it.”

“We’ve brought in kids who were initially attracted to the zoo, but many of them decide to go into botany because they’ve developed an appreciation for plants,” observes Daniel Mateo, BioTECH’s assistant principal. “With plants, so many genetic modifications are possible…Plants aren’t boring.”

BioTECH’s students “learn about the interconnectedness of all living things, [including] how the animals, like the mega fauna at the zoo, need plants to survive,” says Padolf. “[Students learn that] the seawater level in Miami is rising, and we need mangrove trees to stop that.”

With a student body that is 76% “of Latino descent” and 22% “African American/Caribbean,” BioTECH represents “the new face of science education” and aims to produce “the next generation of botanists,” she asserts.

BioTECH students engage in “actual, practical, authentic research projects” in the school’s state-of-the-art labs and greenhouse and work with scientists in the field at Fairchild and the zoo, says Mateo. “There is project- based learning in every course, and conservation biology is incorporated into every subject…We have 14-yearolds manipulating variables and doing what researchers do.”

When BioTECH opened in 2014, students began micropropagating native orchids as part of the Million Orchid Project, which Fairchild created with the goal of reintroducing 1 million endangered orchids to Miami’s public spaces. “Our students are propagating f
rom seed, which is difficult to do,” Mateo points out. Students presented their findings and growing methods to visitors at the International Orchid Festival in March 2015.

As juniors and seniors, students will take the college-level Introduction to Botany course and focus their research on a particular topic, according to Padolf. Fairchild “will work with them to get their research published in peer-reviewed journals,” she notes.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of member newspaper, NSTA Reports ( Editor of Freebies for Science Teachers ( and NSTA Calendar ( pages. Follow me on Twitter: @Debra_NSTA
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