Hamsters And Complex Experiments Inspire High Schoolers' Research
13, 2000 -- Katie Schleeter had never heard of circadian
rhythms when her science teacher first mentioned it last fall, but
she knew she was interested in any field of biology that would challenge
her to conduct original research.
a senior at The Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
in Fairfax County, Va., has since learned that circadian rhythms
are the internal biological clocks that make the body tick. For
her senior project -- a major undertaking that is a requirement
for graduation -- she is conducting prolonged experiments using
hamsters to see how pheromones affect the animals' circadian rhythms.
year I didn't know anything about biological clocks or about how
to take care of hamsters," Schleeter says. "Now I'm designing equipment
and conducting experiments with hamsters. I hope to gather enough
new data to help us understand a little more about how pheromones
influence the activity cycles in these animals."
got started with guidance from her teacher Paul Cammer, and help
from U.Va.'s Center for Biological Timing. Public outreach is a
big part of the mission of the National Science Foundation-funded
center, which also maintains an interactive website to help young
students understand science. Schleeter visited the center last November
to see how scientists here set up experiments using hamsters.
addition to the research we conduct, we also visit schools, and
bring elementary and secondary school students and their teachers
to our labs," says Gene Block, center director and U.Va.'s vice
president for research and public service. "We try to give students
a strong sense of what scientific research is really like."
has visited Thomas Jefferson High School numerous times to encourage
students to conduct original research, and consider careers in science.
He also has loaned lab equipment, including a polygraph machine
and microscopes. His most recent visit was in January to provide
advice to Katie Schleeter and her lab partners in designing their
are smart, engaging students who think creatively and are interested
in understanding how the world works," Block says. "It is always
exciting to spend time with them. I get much more out of this outreach
effort than I put in."
says it is helpful for bright, college-bound students to begin conducting
research while they still are in high school.
universities and colleges, including U.Va., encourage their undergraduate
students to conduct research," he says. "It can be a real advantage
for high school students to get an early appreciation of how frustrating
fundamental research can be, that things don't work right the first
time, and that accurate answers don't come easy. This helps them
approach research more maturely when they become college students."
says several of his students are conducting research on circadian
rhythms for their senior projects, much of it inspired by the help
have students doing reasonably sophisticated investigations on blind
cavefish, goldfish, plants, rats, hamsters, and with snail eyes,"
Cammer says. "Gene Block's center has been very helpful to our students
with ideas for setting up experiments, sorting through data, and
doing more meaningful research. The students still have to do the
work, but the interaction with U.Va. has helped bring them to an
years ago, Cammer was searching the Internet for interesting research
projects for his students. He discovered a real-time, online circadian
rhythm hamster experiment at U.Va. (http://www.cbt.virginia.edu/olh/).
site, the creation of the center's former education outreach coordinator,
Diana Foster-Jones, is an educational tool that uses experiments
to illustrate how changing light and dark conditions in a controlled
environment affect the biological clocks of animals. The site includes
real-time moving images of hamsters running on exercise wheels in
light-controlled cages. University computers, meanwhile, monitor
the activity of the hamsters and stack up reams of data for students
to study online. The information serves as a virtual experiment
for teachers and their students world-wide.
using the web, we are able to transfer complex and interesting real
time experiments directly from our lab to the classroom or home,"
says Jennifer Scott, who is now the education outreach coordinator
and manages the on-line hamster experiments. "We invite teachers
to incorporate these experiments into their lesson plans, and to
encourage their students to visit the site for extra credit projects."
anywhere can log onto the website and see what the hamsters are
doing, as they do it. The students can monitor the activity of the
hamsters, track the data, and formulate their own ideas. They can
even contact Scott by phone or email for help in understanding the
website gets 1,500 to 2,000 hits per month," Scott says. "We've
had direct contact with dozens of students from more than 50 countries,
at all grade levels."
who came to U.Va. last year from Mary Washington College, focuses
on expanding the outreach of the center by visiting more schools
around the state. She also conducts student tours of the center
and helps students think creatively and scientifically in using
the web site. She is currently working on updating the hamster site
to make it more user-friendly for students, particularly at the
elementary and middle school levels.
Schleeter is one of Scott's regular contacts.
help from U.Va. has been great," Schleeter says. "I've learned so
much, that I now realize there is so much more to learn."
of the many things Schleeter has learned is that she wants to major
in the life sciences in college, and she wants to continue to conduct
Fariss Samarrai, (804) 924-3778