Dordt College News

Science teachers collaborate and learn about prairie diversity

August 16, 2010

Dr. Jeffrey Ploegstra says he likes to kill as many birds as he can with one stone.

While the paraphrased old idiom does not reflect his behavior toward birds, it does describe what he hoped to do by offering a research course for middle and high school teachers this past summer.

Teachers have the possibility of participating remotely in ongoing genetic research. Teachers received free lodging and stipends for attending and for travel costs.Ploegstra fed his love of research and his commitment to good science teaching while the teachers who participated deepened their understanding of the relation between science and faith, gained curricular insights, met other Christian science teachers, and participated in a significant research project.

A new biology department DNA sequencer and lab and an ongoing departmental research project on genetic diversity made the three-week event a productive experience for all involved.

“Science teachers in Christian schools often feel isolated because there aren’t many of them in a school,” says Ploegstra. As a result, they don’t have others with whom to discuss specific curricular issues or topics related to science and faith. The summer course, which ran July 12 to 30, provided these benefits and included five teachers, from Florida, Georgia, Indiana, and Iowa, who earned continuing education credit.

“In my AP Biology class, I discuss some of the topics we used this summer, including gel electrophoresis, PCR, and hydridization. We also discuss population genetics and the importance of biodiversity. I will have a lot more depth to offer my students on these topics,” said one participant in his evaluation of the course.

Ploegstra and the teachers spent mornings doing research and afternoons discussing books and articles on science and faith. Prior to arriving on campus, participants were expected to familiarize themselves with the research already in process and complete assigned readings for afternoon discussions.

Mornings, the teachers worked as assistants to Dordt faculty and senior biology majors on the genetic diversity research project. Ploegstra wanted to explore whether the fragmentation of Iowa native prairies hurts the gene flow in Butterfly Milkweed. The teachers collected samples of the plant from both the restored Dordt Prairie and the natural remnant Freda Haffner Kettlehole Prairie, about an hour’s drive from Dordt College. In the lab they extracted DNA from each sample in a process similar to DNA fingerprinting to show the quality of the DNA they had collected.

After analyzing and entering DNA data from these samples and others into a software program that identified inbreeding, population differentiation, and overall genetic diversity, they found that there was no evidence of inbreeding in Dordt’s restored prairie. As in humans, inbreeding compromises the health of plants. However, the research did show that the Dordt Butterfly Milkweed, grown from seed purchased from a source in Oklahoma, was more similar to Oklahoma varieties than to those in nearby remnant prairies. Ploegstra presented the results of the research at the North American Prairie Conference the week after the course ended.

Afternoon discussions focused on topics such as science as a process, faith and the nature of scientific knowledge, and science and stewardship. In the evenings, the group  worked on developing curriculum related to the research they were doing and that incorporated a Christian perspective on science. The last few days were also spent on curriculum development.

“I have had awakened a sense of wonder at what God has done in His creation. God’s power is awesome, and I need to keep that firmly in mind as I deal with my students. At the same time, I need to deal with them in grace and respect as children of God. I saw the way in which many of my brothers and sisters in Christ deal with the same issues that I have to struggle with in my classroom every year,” another teacher wrote.

Ploegstra was pleased with the course. Studies show that similar research experiences for high school science teachers have a significant impact on teacher attitudes and teaching and result in improved performance by students. He believes that it will improve critical scientific thinking skills for high school students—which, in turn, will also benefit him and his colleagues as those future students enroll at Dordt College.


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