5th Anniversary Biology Day Hosts Hughes High School Freshmen for Experiment Workshops in the University of Cincinnati Department of Biological Sciences

In a day filled with workshops and active learning exercises, UC biology professors and graduate students continue to educate Hughes HS freshmen in annual Biology Day.

Professors and students dissect a sheep's brain together.

Professors and students dissect a sheep's brain together.

By: John(na) Jackson

Date: June 8, 2018

Contact: (513) 556-4350

On May 4th, 2018, the sixth floor of Rieveschl Hall at University of Cincinnati housed a series of biology-based science workshops for the entire 9th grade student body from Hughes High School. The halls were alive with the squeals of some students getting to meet their first in-person snake, while other rooms were noted for the loud thuds of students racing to the corners at the sight of giant hissing cockroaches.  This was the soundtrack of the 5th annual Biology Day at UC, where faculty from Hughes HS organize with the UC Department of Biological Sciences to provide freshmen Hughes students with an end-of-year field trip that introduces them to the UC campus and ignites their interest in the science fields offered at UC.

UC faculty and their graduate students organized the science workshops. An all-day fieldtrip, Hughes students were able to engage in 10 different hands-on projects facilitated by faculty and student volunteers. Stephanie Rollmann, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, and Patrick Guerra, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences organized this year’s program. Approximately 130 Hughes students participated in this year’s Biology Day.

 A Hughes student squirms as she meets her first snake.

A Hughes student squirms as she meets her first snake.

Sneaky Snakes and Squeamish Students

In the first session, Bruce Jayne, Professor and Assistant Department Head of Biological Sciences, began by having students complete a seemingly simple worksheet -- look at seven pictures and determine which ones were snakes. Initially, students were confident in their ability to spot a snake, but their unanimous “yes” responses were readily met by Jayne: “That’s why science is not a democracy, because you’re uniformly wrong.”

Amongst student laughter, Jayne revealed that several creatures in question were in fact legless amphibians. After some table exercises, Jayne instructed students how to stand like “a tree” while his student volunteers helped dress Hughes students in long boa constrictors. With large snakes draped across their necks, the students then did their best to maintain composure as their reptilian friends climbed their tree stances.

Takuya Konishi shows off the powerful jaw structures of ancient predators surrounded by students.

Takuya Konishi shows off the powerful jaw structures of ancient predators.

Not-so-spooky Skeletons

Recently profiled in UC Magazine for his research of Cretaceous creatures, Takuya Konishi, taught a workshop on comparative vertebrate anatomy and paleontology. Konishi- a vertebrate paleontologist by training - is an assistant educator for the Department of Biological Sciences, teaching Human/Comparative Anatomy. Students in Konishi’s workshop learned more about skeletal structures of ancient animals and their evolution into their contemporary forms. Participating for his second year, Konishi notes his continued joy in seeing the speed with which high school students are able learn the material he presents them.

“I take Biology Day as an opportunity to convey the process and joy of scientific discoveries, hypothesis making and testing, and importance of direct observation and communications,” said Konishi. “It is important that we as a community engage in local children's learning experience, particularly in science, where 'truth' comes from evidence, not a particular person.”

Doug Stevens, faculty member at both UC and Hughes HS, has worked with Rollmann on all five years of Biology Day. He says the initial hope was to, “create an engaging, positive experience that would expose our students to some authentic labs in the biology department.”

Organizers also share the goal of having students “leave with a glimpse into life in the university environment,” according to Rollmann.

While all of the workshops contained a level of interactivity, in the spirit of introducing students to “authentic labs,” other workshops involved students in hands-on experiments using an array of tools and lab equipment.

Students huddled around dishes of water beetle larvae to discover which UV light helped the insects hunt the best.

Students huddled around dishes of water beetle larvae to discover which UV light helped the insects hunt the best.

Lights Off, Bug Out

In her program How Insects See The World, Professor in Biological Sciences Elke Bushbeck gave students the opportunity to work with light shades across the UV spectrum to learn more about insect vision through racing water beetle larvae toward their food sources.

With the lights off, students huddled around their respective light source. “UV is ready? Red is ready?” Bushbeck asked. “On your mark, get set, go,” she yelled, as students quickly began to add mosquito larvae from droppers into the water beetle containers. In turn, groups called out when their beetle captured mosquito larvae – ultimately, looking for the color spectrum most conducive to water beetle hunting conditions.

A student investigates giant hissing cockroaches before engaging in an experiment. Holding the cockroach up wearing gloves.

A student investigates giant hissing cockroaches before engaging in an experiment.

While Hughes freshmen have a few more years before they can jump into these fields officially, they were able to leave with new ways of understanding the role of biology as foundational to many other areas of science and technology. Bushbeck’s exploration of the light spectrum and vision is related to the technology used to create night-vision goggles. Activities focused on stream invertebrates revealed ways of understanding environmental health in our watersheds. The variety of workshops available to students demonstrated the vast application of biological studies to most other fields of studies.

The especially in-depth nature of many of the workshops organized for students reflect the goals Stevens and others have shared for the program.

“An important part of our mission here at Hughes STEM High School is to build partnerships with the surrounding community that work to integrate our students into the fabric of the world outside our school,” said Stevens. “Children need authentic experiences in the real world in order to grow and become well-adjusted adults.  As part of our Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) focus, the Biology Day represents the perfect opportunity to get 9th grade students thinking about possible future careers in the biological sciences and about the possibility of experiencing that in college.”

For five years in a row now, the response from Hughes students has been overwhelmingly positive. Stevens reports that students all agree, “it is the best fieldtrip ever.”

“This year, when we got back to school, the students were busy posting about the trip on social media and our students from last year came to visit us at the end of the day and tell us how jealous they were and how much they wished they could have gone again,” said Stevens. “This success is due to the hard work of all of the partnering professors and graduate students in UC's biology department.”

Biology Day is a large joint effort with many participants, including UC student volunteers. “The program is only possible because of the effort of faculty, staff and students both in the UC Department of Biological Sciences and at Hughes High School,” said Rollmann. “The roles of UC students are diverse - from developing and running independent biology activities to collaborating with UC faculty to helping organize the day.”

The Biology Day program is the beginning of this kind of relationship between UC and Hughes HS, but Rollmann has high hopes for the future. After managing Biology Day for five years, she now sees the scope of such projects as much larger. Organizers are currently waiting to hear results of a National Science Foundation (NFS) grant decision that could allow them to expand the idea beyond Biology Day into a summer-long program for students who are underrepresented in STEM fields.

Biology Day is sponsored by the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, the Department of Biological Sciences, and the Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Impact.