Four students in Maine had the unique chance to study organisms on their shoreline this past year to help contribute research to a new chemical bond discovery that Vanderbilt University researchers made three years ago.
It’s an experience they would not have had if it weren’t for a pilot program that the university has created for rural K12 students across the nation. Researchers from Vanderbilt University are delivering hands-on science experiments through the Aspirnaut Program, which aims to increase STEM achievement and interest in students from rural communities. “We’ve got data from teachers and students saying they are now more excited about science. This is a great chance for students to learn about different science careers,” says Erika Thompson, Aspirnaut program manager.
Founded in 2006 by Billy Hudson and his wife Julie, both professors at Vanderbilt, the Aspirnaut Program reaches 500 students per year in grades 3 through 8 in 15 schools in Arkansas, Maine, Montana, and Tennessee. Vanderbilt researchers video conference, or “beam,” students weekly using Skype to teach science labs and experiments that best fit each teacher’s needs. More than 100 labs are available in chemistry, astronomy, earth science, and biology. “Teachers can work with us to create a calendar to meet their standards,” Thompson says. “Many of these schools have limited staff, or don’t have the money or resources to give their students a hands-on science lab experience.”
Many of the labs, Thompson says, are basic, using affordable supplies, like cardboard and duct tape, that schools will provide. When working on a geology experiment, for example, Vanderbilt will send rocks and other minerals for the students to study. “The teacher on our end walks the students through the labs and provides background instruction, while the teacher on-site helps facilitate the lab and ensures safety,” she says.
Now in place at five rural Maine schools, the program has provided labs for four gifted students, ranging from grades 4 through 7, at Dedham School during the past academic year. “I reached out to [Aspirnaut] because Dedham doesn’t have a real gifted program and these students needed more of a challenge,” says seventh-grade teacher Rhonda Tate.
Through the “Abstract Dedham Special Project,” the students worked with researchers at Vanderbilt on studying the evolutionary origins of a new chemical bond, or an attraction between atoms that forms chemical substances. The students searched for evidence from the central Maine shoreline of this bond by collecting organisms, such as sea anemones, that may carry the bond. One Vanderbilt researcher, Aaron Fidler, visited the students for a few days to help collect the sea anemones and met with them on Skype weekly throughout the year to help them analyze the samples they collected. The students’ findings indicated the sulfur- and nitrogen-based bond did exist in the species they collected, which is important to the study of chemical bonds in all animal tissue.
Because of this success, the students presented their findings at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Annual Conference during its experimental biology outreach poster session this past April.
“The Aspirnaut curriculum is based on discovery science, not just simulations,” Tate says. “These kids were so much more invested in this project knowing they were a part of this scientific discovery. Experiencing real science is the only way to learn, and it’s so important to have students exposed to it at a young age.”