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Online Hamsters And Complex Experiments Inspire High Schoolers' Research

March 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.

Schleeter, 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.

"Last 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."

Schleeter 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.

"In 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."

Block 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 experiments.

"These 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."

Block says it is helpful for bright, college-bound students to begin conducting research while they still are in high school.

"Many 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."

Cammer says several of his students are conducting research on circadian rhythms for their senior projects, much of it inspired by the help from U.Va.

"We 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 advanced level."

A few 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/).

The 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.

"By 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."

Students 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 experiments.

"Our 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."

Scott, 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.

Katie Schleeter is one of Scott's regular contacts.

"The 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."

One 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 research.

Contact: Fariss Samarrai, (804) 924-3778

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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