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Noble Education Fellowship: An Educator Experiences Endophytes

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I am Kelsey Lawrence, a math teacher in Madill, Oklahoma. This summer, I had the privilege of working at Noble Research Institute’s mycology lab with Carolyn Young, Ph.D., and her team.

When I saw the posting for this fellowship, it sounded like a perfect fit since I have always loved science and agriculture and pursued degrees in agricultural business and international agriculture. I also strive to implement science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) activities in my middle-school math classrooms. After meeting with Young and her research associate, Amy Flanagan, I knew this was going to be a great opportunity.

Carolyn Young, Ph.D. (principal investigator at Noble Research Institute) and Kelsey Lawrence (2019 Noble Education Fellow) preparing for a field trip to monitor cotton root rot progression at Noble’s Dupy Research Farm, Ardmore, Oklahoma.

This summer’s Noble Education Fellowship was funded by a National Science Foundation grant designed to equip teachers to train the next generation in STEM. The project is a research and outreach collaboration between Noble Research Institute and Jason Wallace, Ph.D., of the University of Georgia. Each summer, a teacher from either Oklahoma or Georgia is selected to participate in a project that communicates the science associated with the research project. The fellowship gave me the opportunity to work with researchers, educators and learners. I also helped develop lesson plans to teach science through hands-on experiments. The fellowship also provided the funding to purchase the necessary equipment to take back to my classroom and put these lesson plans into action.

Jason Wallace, Ph.D., (University of Georgia) collaborates with the Noble Research Institute in providing the Noble Education Fellowship, which equips teachers from Oklahoma and Georgia to strengthen the STEM workforce. Photo courtesy of Merritt Melancon, UGA.

I had specific goals for my work, including strengthening the STEM outreach program at my school and learning how to apply Noble’s agricultural research to teaching science and math skills to students. I also wanted to learn more about scientific research and working in a lab, so I could take back a well-rounded lesson for my students. The training I received this summer has given me a perspective and skills that I can share with my students.

Kelsey demonstrating a leaf peel to collaborators at University of Georgia. Also pictured: (from left) Kyle Duckett (Noble research technician), Naomi Rodman (UGA), Jenn Moore and Jenn Scott (Noble).

The endophyte research project focuses on fungi living inside a grass in a relationship that benefits both the fungi and the plant, or in science terms: the symbiosis of endophytes in tall fescue. This is an interesting relationship because the endophyte is great for the grass, but some types can be harmful to grazing livestock because of toxic chemicals produced by the fungus. The mycology lab achieves the best of both worlds by identifying and developing grasses supported by friendly fungi without toxic effects.

I learned how scientists research endophytes in tall fescue and how they share their science with the community through Noble’s youth education outreach program. I used lab protocols such as endophyte detection through performing a leaf peel and seed squash, sample collection and processing, media preparation, culturing endophytes through grow-outs from plants, using microscopes, as well as performing DNA preps and other molecular biology techniques including immunoblotting to test for endophytes.

Agricultural producer viewing the endophyte in a leaf peel during a pasture renovation workshop.

Kelsey completing the seed squash method of slide preparation to get an understanding of the experiment and adapt it for an educational activity.

The learning unit we developed in the mycology lab can be adjusted depending on the age level of learners and specific outreach activity focus. The activities can apply to the sixth through 12th grades and beyond, to other areas including biology and biotechnology classes for high school and college, even for agricultural education outreach to producers.

Kelsey helping college students view the endophyte in a seed squash as a part of a Noble youth education outreach tour. Close up: Endophyte hyphae look like small threads among the dark cells of the seed.

This project also involved aligning standards from Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas and the Next Generation Science Standards to the lesson plans we developed. I experimented to see how a teacher could use these lessons in their classrooms without spending a ton of money. We purchased seeds and soil from local stores and supplies such as bathroom cups, ice cube trays and egg cartons as seed trays for planting. We then waited for the plants to grow. This experiment is a hands-on activity that a teacher could do in their classroom to provide tillers for the leaf-peel lab exercise.

Experimenting with growing grass seeds in a classroom setting.

Endophyte (squiggly blue lines) in a leaf peel completed by Kelsey.

I also traveled with members of the mycology lab and with Frank Hardin, Ph.D., and the Noble Youth Education Outreach team to the University of Georgia to visit the Wallace Lab and discuss the outreach component with Jason and lab manager Naomi Rodman. We were able to provide training and discuss the 2019 fellowship milestones. I also met Bonnie Harris, program director of the Georgia Intern Fellowships for Teachers, to coordinate the selection of a Georgia teacher for next summer’s fellowship.

From left, Amy Flanagan, Kelsey Lawrence, Darian Gonzalez (research assistant), Carolyn Young and Kyle Duckett touring the University of Georgia football stadium during a visit to the lab of Jason Wallace, Ph.D., in Athens, Georgia.

In August, I traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, with Carolyn and Amy to present our poster about outreach activities at Plant Health 2019, the annual American Phytopathological Society meeting. This gave me the opportunity to learn more about plant pathology and how science is communicated by scientists from around the world.

Kelsey in Cleveland, Ohio, at the American Phytopathological Society conference and the outreach poster she presented.

In closing, I learned more than I could have ever imagined in these three months at Noble! The diversity of experience, hands-on learning and networking opportunities made this position a great opportunity for a teacher seeking to expand her knowledge and return with science tools and insight to give to her students in the classroom. I highly recommend this fellowship to expand your knowledge and skills over the summer, and I encourage you to contact Noble Research Institute about future opportunities.

Kelsey and Carolyn enjoying the American Phytopathological Society conference.

Kelsey Lawrence’s association with Noble began when she attended Noble AgVenture for high school students interested in careers in agriculture. She was awarded a Sam Noble Scholarship to attend Oklahoma State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business and a master’s in international agriculture. Today, she teaches fifth grade math in Madill, Oklahoma, after teaching sixth and seventh grade math there for the four years prior. She strives to implement science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) activities in her classroom.