Biotech Program Creates Problem Solvers

Rock Canyon Biotech Program Creates Problem Solvers
Posted on 06/01/2020
Rock Canyon Biotech Program Creates Problem Solvers

RCHS Biotech Group

It’s so much fun to be able to come up with a problem you want to see solved in the world and work through every step of the way to get to a conclusion and to spread those results.

- Sage Wheeler (center)

HIGHLANDS RANCH - The Biotechnology or "biotech" program at Rock Canyon High School (RCHS) began in 2008 and has developed into a robust opportunity for Career and Technical Education (CTE). After an introduction class, students can apply for the Research Biotech course as upperclassmen. It's there where teacher Shawndra Fordham and Susanne Petri, another program instructor, help them hone the practical and interpersonal skills necessary for science.

“I wanted to do scientific research at the high school level,” Fordham explained. “The kids have grown the program by what they want to do. We’ve figured out how to get equipment and build things like a cell culture room with grants and used equipment. There’s a lot of innovation involved.”

Students design their experiments, write research proposals, secure funding, conduct research, interpret findings, and publish their research -- all of the essential steps to understanding the greater field of inquiry that awaits them outside of RCHS. Those who complete the course emerge with the tools to identify big-picture problems, develop workable solutions, and communicate complex ideas.

For seniors Derek Fearon, Sage Wheeler, and Hope James, the shift to remote learning meant they had to finish the semester outside of the lab.

The group's research began in September 2019, as they sought to address one of the world's most pervasive challenges: hunger. To meet the needs of sky-rocketing populations, farmers often grow protein-rich crops such as soybeans. The constant demand for food quickly leads to overcultivated soil drained of the necessary nutrients to sustain life. Eventually, farmers may run out of arable land entirely. While synthetic fertilizers are available to revive the soil, Fearon, Wheeler, and James wanted to find a sustainable and affordable solution. Their answer lay in an academic paper published over a century ago.

"We found a paper from 1918 from Iowa State University," explained Wheeler. "They used this technique called rhizobium bacteria inoculation to mix a bacterium in a symbiosis with a legume. It starts up the nitrogen cycle to bring nutrients back into the soil."

Rhizobium bacteria inoculation is available to today's farmers. However, the agricultural industry favors gum arabic as the best way to carry out the technique, but gum arabic is expensive and hard to attain.

"If you have a poorer farmer in rural Ethiopia, they're not going to be able to use this technology even though it works really well," said Wheeler. "We wanted to find a more affordable, more widely-available material to use. Ultimately, we found that Coca-Cola was the most effective of low-cost treatments."

That's right: Coca-Cola, the ubiquitous international beverage, met the industry standard for nitrogenizing and restoring depleted soil.

“What’s special about [this group’s] research is the results are immediately applicable,” said Fordham. “They can actually be used to help solve problems. It’s meaningful right out of the gate.”

After months of collecting data, Fearon, Wheeler, and James submitted their work to science fairs. The trio's research won the first in their category at the Denver Metro Regional Science Fair, third overall at the Colorado State Science Fair, and first overall at the Colorado-Wyoming Junior Academy of Science Annual Symposium. Their final paper will publish in the latest Research in Biotechnology: Principles of Experimental Design in Biotechnology, an RCHS academic journal edited and produced by Fordham and teacher librarian Bryan Winkelman.

"Thanks to our school’s teacher librarian, Mr. Winkelman, it's a really professional-looking journal," said Fearon. "We're super blessed to have the biotech program be as established and professional as it is."

Like all other students, the research team had to make a rapid adjustment from learning in a lab to learning at home.

Despite the sudden shift from classroom to remote learning, the team’s continued passion for their research enabled them to continue refining their scientific skills even when learning from home.

"It's hard to be motivated [during remote learning]," said Fearon. "But when you have a bigger goal, and you have a team to work with, it makes it really rewarding."

According to James: "Having to do normal school and trying to continue our research [during the pandemic] kept me motivated. I think it was really helpful for the future when giant curveballs like this are thrown at us, being able to adapt and learn that even if it feels like the world is ending, there are really basic things you have to keep doing even during a global pandemic."

Fearon agreed: "We all easily could have stopped everything, but we found something that we value and find rewarding. You kind of understand what really makes you tick and what you want to focus on. This [research] was an incredible experience, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I think even a pandemic wouldn't stop that."

So what will Fearon, Wheeler, and James take with them when they leave the biotech program and RCHS for good?

"We're excellent gardeners now!" laughed Wheeler. "Derek wrote a really nice part at the end of our paper about how all of science is one understanding and being able to add just a little bit, no matter how small, if it helps just one person, then it's completely worth it. Being able to contribute to that tapestry of knowledge is an incredible experience."

The RCHS Biotechnology website is also packed with alumni testimonials.

“When kids come back from college what they say is thank you for making me a better writer, a better presenter, and teaching me to work independently. The skills are transferable across any field,” said Fordham. “In developing all of those interpersonal communication skills, writing, thinking critically, you’re learning how to fix your problems for yourself. This is the most powerful thing [a young person] could ever go through.”

This fall, Fearon will run Cross Country for Pomona College in Claremont, CA; Wheeler will attend Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA; and James will attend the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO. Regardless of where their paths lead, these three graduates will carry the determination, the self-knowledge, and the grit they've earned from the RCHS biotech program.
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