Work-Study: Students study ag topics in high school biology
Several Nebraska youth are getting a taste of the agricultural research world.
Students at Central City, Nebraska, in Mrs. Chelle Gillan’s advanced biology and anatomy and physiology classes are required to do a research project of their choice, and some of those students choose topics in the ag world.
Mrs. Gillan’s sophomores in biology each do a simple experiment, then those students who take an advanced science class are required to do a more intensive research project.
The projects are of the student’s choosing, and range from the effectiveness of biochar on seed corn, to the propensity for cavities, the effect of antibiotics on small water crustaceans called daphnia, and using switchgrass for biofuels.
This year, senior Chesney Reeves is studying the efficiency of cattle dewormers. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s research feedlot in Mead, she took 200 rectal fecal samples from incoming calves just off the truck. Twelve days later, after the calves were treated for dewormers, she returned to the feedyard to take another sample from the same calves. The samples were sent for testing to a lab in Lawrence, Kansas. Seventy-two percent of the calves had stomach worms before treatment. After treatment, only two of 200 calves had worms.
The research projects reap bountiful rewards for students, Gillan says. Students learn how to read and digest research projects, approach university professors to ask for advice, and how to present, among others. She has seen the effect the work has on the students. “I’ve seen success story after success story, and I’ve seen students’ lives change. Their confidence, their skills, there’s no way to put it into words how it affects students.”
The projects require from thirty to forty hours outside of class time. As students read research papers written on their topic, they reach out to the writers of those papers, who often include professors. Gillan has had students working with professors from UNL, the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Colorado State and even a professor in Massachusetts.
As a junior, Reeves’ research project was testing for the prevalence of coccidia in feedyard cattle. She brainstormed her project with David Lee, DVM, to find a relevant project, one that was a problem in the industry.
She took twenty fecal samples from each of six different pens at Christensen Feedyards in Central City and Fullerton and sent the samples to a lab at UNL. All six of the pens were positive for coccidia, and at least fifty percent of the samples were positive, showing that the disease is prevalent in feedyards.
Gillan’s students take their projects to the Nebraska Junior Academy of Science and the State FFA Agri-Science Fair. The top ten projects at the state level qualify for the American Junior Academy of Science National Conference. In each of the last seven years, at least one person from Gillan’s classes has gone on to the American Junior Academy conference.
Last year, Reeves won top honors at the Nebraska State FFA Agri-Science Fair in her division, animal systems, and also won the veterinary award at the Greater Nebraska Engineering Science Fair.
The skills students gain from research are applicable in nearly all job settings, Gillan says. “The way we want education to be is for students to have skills that will transfer across subjects. Research is all-encompassing. They have to improve their writing and reading skills. They have to read science journal papers, which are difficult to read. They learn computer skills and how to analyze data. They learn organization and time management. And probably the most important things they learn are perseverance and grit, because science research never goes as planned.”
Adapting and modifying plans is good for students, Gillan said, especially the high ability students. “A lot of the kids doing this research have never had to fail. I would rather have them have little bumps in the road now in high school. They learn to pick themselves up and keep going when times get tough.”
Reeves takes great satisfaction in her success at science fairs. “It’s a proud moment,” she said. “You know how much work went into it, and you see other people coming up and being interested in what you did, asking about your research and genuinely caring about it.” She recalls a moment when she was working alongside grad students at a feedyard as she collected data. They mistook her for another grad student. “It was really cool,” Reeves said. “They were UNL grad students and they helped me.”
Gillan has seen it affect students’ career choices. Central City High graduate Sydnie Reeves (a distant relative to Chesney) wanted to be a veterinarian. Her high school research project, studying roundworms in raccoons, was published in The Journal of Emerging Investigators, and she narrowed her career choice to the area of parasitology.
Gillan also knows that the research students do helps them no matter their career choice. “The skills they learn transfer to anything,” she said. “These are the types of things employers want: communication skills, problem solving skills, perseverance, time management, dependability. When things don’t go right, they have to say, how can I redesign this to make it work? These are all things that the employers are looking for.”
Gillan is a strong advocate for her students, too. “With Mrs. Gillan, you can go as far as you want,” said Reeves. “She never says no.” Gillan encourages her students who are afraid they’ll get a negative answer. “Her statement is, ‘The worst they can do is say no,’” Reeves said.