Once upon a time, high school science class meant dissecting frogs and worms and mixing chemicals to see how they would react.
What most students were not doing was working on cutting edge research projects and making strides in sophisticated studies that could contribute to scientific knowledge in the future.
But that’s exactly what Shelter Island School teacher Dan Williams is seeing many of his students accomplish — often without the sophisticated equipment used by professional scientists and doctors.
And, yes, there are science students still dissecting worms and frogs, but that’s not where their scientific education ends, Mr. Williams said, but he’s opened opportunities for his students at such institutions as Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Weill School of Medicine in New York City.
Sarah Lewis, Francesca Frasco and Mia Clark were at a June Board of Education meeting to talk about the strides they and their fellow student, Luke Gilpin, had made this past semester in exploring barcoding of DNA.
By now, the public is well aware of barcoding that’s used to scan prices in retail stores. And most know that DNA provides markers that can identify genes in animals and humans, but combining the two is a science that’s only come to the fore in the past dozen years.
The students had to learn to extract DNA and then to test it for information that scientists now know can enable identification of every organism on the planet. At the “Protein Symposium” at the Weill School of Medicine, students were able to move their preliminary classroom knowledge forward and offer presentations of their own work to their peers and the professionals.
Weill School, a major center for cancer research in New York City, encourages the work of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to inspire them to choose careers in those areas.
Similarly, Mr. Williams took the same students to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory this spring to demonstrate their scientific knowledge. Mr. Williams is a teaching fellow at Cold Spring Harbor.
Ms. Clark and Ms. Lewis presented a project they called, “We Lichen Science,” dealing with the relationships and interdependence among lichen, algal and fungal samples and the tree they inhabit.
Ms. Frasco and Mr. Gilpin worked on a project they called, “Nothing Bugs Me When I’m Gardening.” That involved analysis of the relationship of micro fauna in various soil environments.
Students began their projects in September 2015, and after eliciting Mr. Williams’ approval, gathered samples they would need for their research. During the last two months before their presentations, they extracted DNA from organisms, and were able to identity and characterize inter-relationships.
While his students had to create projects and then apply to be accepted to a symposium, once at Cold Spring Harbor, the presentations weren’t competitive, Mr. Williams said.
“We’re getting better,” he said about his students.
The Board of Education has been generous in providing equipment not found in many high school laboratories that enable students here to do more sophisticated research, Mr. Williams said.
The result is better questions from the students and better information determined by their research, Mr. Williams said.