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Biology students take to the field and dig it


Casey Phillips and Lee Richard prepare fungi samples during Mike Rodriguez's field biology class at Dallas High.


DALLAS -- It's Thursday, 2:15 p.m., and that means lab day for Mike Rodriguez's field biology class at Dallas High School.

Ten or so students shuffle in, drop their bags on hard-topped lab tables and sit around chatting before class.

They are soon joined by the inevitable stragglers just as the bell signals the start of last period.

A dozen students (including one from Falls City High School) comprise this unusual field class.

The class is unique for two reasons. One, there is a weekly field-trip requirement -- the students are mini-bussed out to various forested sites and asked to collect specimens to study back in the lab.

The other aspect is the presence of two biology students from Oregon State University. Sage Lacroix and Dan Fisher are part of a rural schools fellowship program that brings cutting-edge scientific research and knowledge into small rural classrooms.

There are five such teams from OSU in Oregon. They are funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Each week, Lacroix (a graduate student) and Fisher (an undergraduate) drive to Dallas from the OSU campus in Corvallis. Their job is to introduce fresh ideas into the biology curriculum and ease the burden on Rodriguez, who teaches biology classes at Falls City High School as well as Dallas High.

Back in the classroom, Lacroix waits patiently for the students to settle in, then launches into a review of symbiosis. The students are studying plant fungi, and Lacroix is conducting the day's lab experiment.

The students will harvest endophytic fungi from plant cells to grow in Petri dishes. In a few weeks, they will examine the samples under a microscope and talk about their observations.

All of this is related to Lacroix's graduate research in plant pathology.

After going over what symbiosis means (an often-beneficial relationship between different organisms of different species) Lacroix reviews each step in the lab and sets the students to work harvesting their fungi.

Rodriguez says that different students enjoy different aspects of the class. Some really enjoyed learning about marine insects; others preferred the section they did on slugs and snails.

"It's kind of a cumulative effect. Over time they get used to going out into the field, and getting down on their knees and poking around on the ground," Rodriguez says, as he checks over different fungi the students collected earlier in the week. They will be mounted and used for review of the section later.

Every Tuesday, the class travels to camp Kilowan, outside of Falls City, or to various other old-growth tree stands typically maintained by OSU. These excursions start at 2:15 p.m., when class begins, and often end sometime after 5 p.m.

That limits the number of students able to take the class, but Rodriguez feels the hands-on aspect is vital to keeping his students interested.

"It seemed more interesting than the other classes," Alex Canfield, a DHS junior says as she slices up her plant specimen. "And I don't like dissecting animals.

Sophomores Casey Phillips and Lee Richard agreed that the hands-on class attracted them right off.

"Really, it was the next-best thing to Marine Biology," Richard says.

The NSF fellows from OSU get something out of it too: first-hand classroom experience and the chance to share their interest in science with the younger students.

"I had a great experience as a teaching assistant at the university before this, and I found I really like talking about complicated scientific ideas in a classroom environment," Lacroix said.

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