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Oklahoma Math Teacher Spends Summer in Laboratory Learning About Endophytes to Promote STEM in the Classroom

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Kelsey Rogers Lawrence didn’t grow up farming, but rather next door to agriculture in Madill, Oklahoma. Her Texoma hometown of less than 4,000 people is best known as the home of the National Sand Bass Festival. For Lawrence, though, it served as the backdrop that sparked her love for agriculture as she watched friends and neighbors care for livestock and steward the land.

Madill is a short drive from Noble Research Institute’s headquarters in Ardmore, Oklahoma. As Lawrence followed in her older brother’s footsteps, she became active in 4-H and the FFA. She learned more about how Noble worked to help agricultural producers find practical solutions for their farms and ranches.

The agriculture industry was a natural fit for Lawrence. Even though she didn’t grow up on a farm, she enjoyed exhibiting livestock, learning about the industry and mingling with local producers. Perhaps one of the things she loved most about agriculture was how it allowed her to have a hands-on, real-world approach to two of her favorite subjects: math and science. Through 4-H and FFA, she could take equations she learned in algebra to calculate feed efficiency and concepts she learned in biology to better understand animal science.

“I was always one of those kids who needed to know why you do something,” Lawrence says. “It helps to know why you need science and math in your day-to-day life. Yes, it’s important that you can do the assignment, but it’s also important to know how to use it.”

Noble helped cultivate Lawrence’s budding interest in agriculture through AgVenture, a four-day summer camp hosted by Noble Research Institute in the early-2000s. Then, with a Noble scholarship, she headed to Oklahoma State University to pursue a degree in agricultural business.

Lawrence studied abroad then obtained her master’s degree before returning to her hometown and managing a local feed store. When the feed store sold, Lawrence once again pondered her career path. She landed on the idea of teaching. She spent hours shadowing area teachers and took the appropriate tests to receive her certificate.

As she began applying for jobs, she realized she wanted to stay in Madill and give back to her community. As fate would have it, a middle school math teaching position opened up at the perfect time.

Kelsey Rogers Lawrence, Amy Flanagan, Carolyn Young, Ph.D.Kelsey Rogers Lawrence (center), a middle school math teacher, spent her summer learning about endophytes that influence forage production while working alongside Carolyn Young, Ph.D., (right) and Amy Flanagan, research associate, in Young’s laboratory at Noble Research Institute.

Seeing from a Science Perspective

Lawrence isn’t one who believes you can simply stop learning, so she was ecstatic when she learned of an opportunity to participate as an educational fellow as part of a grant received by Noble Research Institute and University of Georgia: “Identifying Host Factors That Influence the Association of Tall Fescue with Beneficial Epichloe Endophytes.” At the time, she wasn’t sure what an endophyte was. However, she knew about Noble Research Institute’s commitment to the agriculture industry and how much agriculture had reinforced her love for math and science. She quickly applied to be involved in the grant’s outreach project to help teachers develop hands-on educational activities related to the research.

During her interview with Carolyn Young, Ph.D., principal investigator for Noble’s part of the research, Lawrence admitted she wasn’t familiar with endophytes. However, she spoke passionately of her commitment to education and her interest in agriculture. Young could see Lawrence was the ideal candidate and selected her as the first Noble Educational Fellow.

Lawrence soon learned an endophyte is a microorganism, such as a fungus, that dwells inside a plant and has a symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, relationship with certain types of grasses. However, some endophytes, such as those found in the KY-31 tall fescue variety, can produce harmful — even toxic — chemicals that can affect grazing animals. The research she conducted with Young helped her see the cattle pastures surrounding her hometown in a new light.

Lawrence realized how important it is for livestock producers to be aware of what type of endophytes are present in their grasses and how some strains could negatively affect their livestock. When she passed fields of cattle trying to cool off in ponds, she wondered if it was a product of KY-31 tall fescue since heat intolerance can be a symptom of endophyte-produced toxins.

Lawrence learned about the symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship between endophytes and grasses, it struck her that there was also a symbiotic relationship between agricultural research and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning. After all, it was her love of science and math that led her to agriculture.

“Kelsey’s interest in STEM and agriculture was perfect for the program,” Young says. “She was able to combine her knowledge as a teacher with our research ideas to help us deliver a classroom exercise that allows students to see a symbiotic association — a fungal endophyte growing in a plant. Key to all of this was to align the lesson with the science curriculum so teachers could easily recognize the value of the exercise.”

Kelsey Lawrence and other researchers work with a microscope.Lawrence’s aim as a Noble Educational Fellow was to translate the research into educational lesson plans and activities that she and other teachers can use in their classrooms.

Equipping Teachers for More

During the summer, Lawrence aligned the endophyte research protocol with age-appropriate lesson plans and guidelines that could help teachers meet their state-mandated curriculum while utilizing hands-on experiments to help their students learn. She also reviewed the proposed plans to ensure they would be affordable and attainable to educators across the nation.

Lawrence is proud to be a part of such a program that will contribute to Noble Research Institute’s already robust youth education and outreach program. The program provides educators with age-appropriate, curriculum-aligned lessons. She’s glad she stepped out of the familiar and into Noble’s lab this summer.

“I just want other teachers to know that it’s OK to step outside of their comfort zone too,” Lawrence says. “You never know what background you can bring to the program and what you can learn from the program. I learned so much not only from the people but also from the research project. I also want to encourage people to use the youth education resources.”

Lawrence also learned the true value of hands-on learning. When she arrived at Young’s lab, it had been more than a decade since Lawrence had actively worked in a laboratory environment. She found herself relearning some of the technology and terminology. One of the laboratory’s research associates, Amy Flanagan, a former science teacher, also taught Lawrence about teaching by example. When Lawrence would seek help with terms or protocols, Flanagan would patiently assist her.

Lawrence returned to the classroom this fall, and she brought with her a new arsenal of teaching methods she learned from Flanagan; new ways she can use hands-on, research-based experiments to enhance her school’s math curriculum; and a new respect for the importance of agricultural research.

But, perhaps most importantly, Lawrence finished this summer with a greater understanding of symbiotic relationships — whether it is that between endophytes and tall fescue grass or the one between practical agricultural research and STEM learning in the classroom.

Tall Fescue Pasture

Katie Miller is a freelance writer residing in Lebanon, Indiana. She holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism and a minor in animal science from the University of Missouri. When she’s not writing, Katie enjoys spending time with her husband and two cattle dogs, driving ponies or visiting her family’s cow-calf operation in central Missouri.