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A team effort for ECHS and Georgia Southern
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Matt Phillips (left) helps Casey Crosby (center) and Steven Dummitt (right) perform a polymerase chain reaction. - photo by Photo by Calli Arnold

In Yvonne Arnsdorff’s Effingham County High School 10th grade biology class, the students crowded around front as a young man in a clean white lab coat coached them through the chemical reaction taking place before them.

As he added dry ice to water, it vaporized to clean fog, and as he added soap, a layer of bubbles formed at the top without overflowing while he explained the molecular change from solid to liquid to gas. This is how Matt Phillips likes to warm up the class before his lectures.

Phillips will finish his master’s degree in biology at Georgia Southern University this year before heading to medical school. So why was he at Effingham County High School talking about polymerase chain reactions (PCR) and “Jurassic Park”?

GSU has launched its brand of the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 program, dubbed: Molecular Biology Initiative (MBI). NSF GK-12 plants graduate students from science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields in schools throughout the country to introduce complex science into grade school curricula. GSU receives funding from NSF to develop their 14 fellows’ research and infuse that research in rural high schools.

Fellows strengthen their molecular biology training and research while enhancing their professional techniques.

“Just (having) the ability to talk to someone who is not a scientist … (and) being able to relay this information in a way that one, they will be interested in and two, that they’ll be able to retain it, helps because if I can explain my research to a ninth grader, I can explain it to anyone,” Phillips said after lecturing on PCR, a process of copying DNA for scientific purposes.

Each of the students performed their own PCR in class using GSU’s equipment — something typically reserved for college students. Occasionally, Arnsdorff’s voice pops up in the room to relate the lab to NCIS and previous class work. The fellow and the teacher clearly have chemistry with the students.

“To me, it’s not that they can’t do it, they’ve just never been presented with it,” she said. “Some of the things I’ve had kids say to me are, ‘Hey, maybe I can be a scientist,’ and I’d never heard that before until he was here.”

Several weeks ago, Arnsdorff and Phillips attended a conference for NSF GK-12 in Washington, D.C. to share the their approach and learn from other programs.

“I sat at a table with people from Boston, Nebraska, New Mexico, all over the place,” Arnsdorff said. “So I was thinking: here we are, we’ve never done this before, this is our first year and we’re behind everybody. We were actually doing as much and more in some cases than most of those schools.”

The MBI fellows outreach with three other Southeastern high schools, and only four universities in Georgia have initiated NSF GK-12 programs: Emory, GSU, Georgia Tech and Savannah State.

Next year, another ECHS teacher will work with a MBI fellow. While the advanced science in her class is exciting, Arnsdorff finds another positive externality of Phillips’ interaction with the students. A high school wrestler and college football player, he breaks scientist stereotypes.

“One of (the kids) said one time, ‘Well, you’ve been in college; I’m sure you drink,’ and he let them know that he doesn’t drink. They need to know that you can still have fun; you can still be your own person,” Arnsdorff said.

“So, I’ve been really thankful that he’s not only shown them science, but he’s a good role model.”