Students Discover’s Muddy Microbes: A middle-school citizen science project exploring rhizosphere community of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Students Discover is an NSF-sponsored Math-Science Partnership project that brings authentic research into middle school classrooms through citizen science (education.yourwildlife.org). In July 2014, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) hosted its first cohort of middle-school teachers who worked in teams with postdoctoral scientists to co-create four original science projects and associated lesson plans. One project, “Muddy Microbes,” uses next-generation DNA sequencing to examine whether the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) recruits a core microbiome of bacteria and fungi into its rhizosphere from different soil types. Teachers and students from two NC middle schools collected dandelions from a central location, surface sterilized roots and transplanted into 30 different soils. They sampled rhizosphere communities after 1 and 4 weeks of growth, culturing the bacteria and fungi on plates, and sending soil samples to NCMNS for sequencing of portions of the 16S and 18S rRNA genes on the Illumina MiSeq platform for identification of bacterial and fungal assemblages. The resulting data, comprising lists of identified bacterial and fungal taxa per sample, number of DNA sequence reads, and associated soil parameters, were returned to the teachers and students formatted for visualization and analysis using Phinch, an interactive program for exploring environmental sequence data.
Observations by external evaluators indicated that the 3-week summer externship in which teachers worked in the NCMNS Genomics lab to design the lessons was highly engaging for the teachers and scientist. Teachers expressed ownership over the project, reported increased confidence in scientific knowledge, and appropriately “felt like scientists”. Classroom observations made during the school year indicated high student engagement by actively collecting data and recording observations. However, students were not observed to analyze and interpret the process in a higher-level context. Because the data analysis phase was expected to be more conducive to higher-level interpretation, data were returned to teachers employing Phinch software to enhance visualization. After using Phinch to manipulate their dandelion results, teachers reported high levels of engagement in their students. Despite issues reported with technological limitations and interpretation difficulty, students were motivated to continue working with data on their own time. Additionally, analyses with these real data were informative in a math setting to represent variation and outliers common in experimental manipulations. Based on classroom feedback, improvements to the study design and the Phinch platform are being made to facilitate student exploration of the dandelion microbiome.