Here's one way to get high school students excited about biology: let them loose in a marsh. "They get to go out in canoes, get their hands and feet wet and muddy, and have a good time while they're exploring a hypothesis that they test as a scientist would," says Damian Shea, who heads North Carolina State University's biology department. The students he describes are part of an outreach program that HHMI has funded since 2002, in which the university partners with an environmental learning center in a poor, rural area in the northeastern part of the state.
The students start with an intensive week-long program at the center, then work on a year-long research project in a team of two juniors, two seniors, and a teacher. Most juniors continue for a second year. Over the years, the students have been more likely to take advanced science classes in high school, and major in science in college, than other students at their schools who didn't take part in the program.
A portion of the university's latest grant will be used to expand the program beyond the original marsh location to other sites throughout the state. Students at a mountain site will study the ecology of a mountain stream. Others will learn about terrestrial ecology in the hilly Piedmont region, examining how insects and plants interact. Near NCSU's campus in Raleigh, one group will study a pond ecosystem. The goal is to get the students excited about doing biological research and eager to continue their studies in science. It's a cost-effective approach—environmental experiments in ponds and streams normally don't require the expensive equipment and reagents that often accompany biomedical lab research.
At the same time, the program will train local high school teachers to take these techniques back to their own schools. "Some have easy access to the sites, and they're welcome to use those," says Shea. "Some of them will not, but they have either a terrestrial site or an aquatic site near the school where they can apply the same methodology."