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July 17, 2023

Drawing high schoolers to STEM with plants and creativity

A collaboration between plant and education researchers at MSU is working to transform the relationship students have with science

If you ask researchers why they work at Michigan State University, a couple of common answers are the people who work here and the size of the institution.


There’s an appetite for collaboration and an expansive range of expertise, enabling people from disparate fields to come together and forge transformative connections.


Where else but a place like MSU — a university known for its leadership in education and plant research — could educators and plant scientists connect to reshape science curricula?


And this particular collaboration isn’t just helping students get a better understanding of biology. It’s turning them into young scientists — perhaps only during class, but still long enough to help them change the way they see the world and themselves.

“It's broadening the idea of who gets to go out and do science.” - Irene "Renee" Bayer, associate director of engagement at the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU

Health in Our Hands

It doesn’t take long to see that the curriculum born from this collaboration makes for a much different experience than the high school biology classes of yore. For starters, it has a comic book for a workbook.


The cover of a comic book called “Mystery of a Monkeyflower.” It shows two young researchers standing in a field of yellow monkeyflowers.
The cover of the comic book used in a new high school science curriculum, developed by a collaboration between Michigan State University researchers. It was conceived by Idit Adler, written by Danny Jackson and illustrated by Louie Chin. Credit: Michigan State University (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Secondly, students are getting their hands dirty growing plants called yellow monkeyflowers that MSU researchers are actively studying. The high schoolers are asking some of the same questions professional plant scientists are trying to answer.


This curriculum is designed to make the idea of science as a field of study and a potential career path more accessible to teenagers.


“We’re getting them engaged with science in science practices, not just having them learn about science,” says Hildah Makori, who joined the CREATE for STEM Institute at MSU as a postdoctoral research associate and curriculum specialist in 2021. “They learn to look at things differently. That’s a lifetime impact.”


The institute’s name is an acronym for Collaborative Research in Education, Assessment and Teaching Environments for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.


Collaborative in name and in nature, CREATE for STEM is operated by the College of Education, the College of Natural Science and the Lyman Briggs College in coordination with the Office of the Provost.


The institute’s high school STEM curriculum is part of the Health in Our Hands program, which CREATE for STEM runs with support from a National Institutes of Health Science Education Partnership Award. Now in its third round of funding, Health in Our Hands is helping schools implement and meet modern science education standards that were finalized in 2013.


An illustrated portrait of Hildah Makori
Hildah Makori, who was a postdoctoral research associate and curriculum specialist with the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University. Credit: May Napora/MSU

Under these standards, students are encouraged to ask questions and challenged to find answers with teachers providing support, guidance and resources as needed. In a way, the standards give students the keys to start investigating like scientists and thinking of themselves as scientists.


Health in Our Hands then helps them drive with a comic book that serves as a sort of roadmap. 


Idit Adler, a former postdoctoral researcher at CREATE for STEM, came up with the idea for the “Mystery of the Monkeyflower” story and comic. She also helped launch the project and develop its original curriculum.


The comic was written by Danny Jackson, who the team described as the perfect person for the job. He worked at MSU as a research technician after earning his bachelor’s degrees in creative writing and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. 


Jackson is now a doctoral student at Arizona State University and Adler is a science education researcher at Tel Aviv University in Israel. Louie Chin, a professional illustrator based in New York City, was the artist.


The comic book’s main characters — a pair of young field scientists — invite the high school students to help with plant research inspired by a real project at MSU. The students grow their own yellow monkeyflowers and then observe, hypothesize and experiment as they learn about genetics, evolution and how those interact with the environment.


The approach is generalizable, but Health in Our Hands prioritized working with underrepresented and underserved communities in Michigan so it also can work to shrink opportunity gaps in the sciences.


Irene “Renee” Bayer, associate director of engagement at the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University. Credit: May Napora/MSU

“The program connects science to social justice and equity,” says Makori, who recently completed her postdoctoral opportunity at MSU and joined Bowdoin College. “Students can see themselves in science and they can see science as something they can use, as well as how our environments impact genes.”


While teaching science content in a new way, Health in Our Hands also wants to share the idea of science as a tool and a potential career path with students who haven't necessarily seen it as anything more than a school subject.


Currently, Black and African American individuals comprise less than 10% of the nation’s STEM workforce. In its latest iteration, which began in 2019, Health in Our Hands has been working with communities in Genesee County, including Flint, where more than half of city’s residents identify as Black or African American. 


“We’re very interested in broadening the participation in science. We want to show it’s not just something that people who are white or have privilege have access to,” says Irene “Renee” Bayer. Bayer is the principal investigator for the Health in Our Hands program and associate director of engagement at CREATE for STEM.


“That’s why the comic book features two young people of color. When we showed it to the kids in Flint, a lot of them were like, ‘What? You can get paid to go out in nature and look at stuff?’” Bayer says. “Not that they are all going to become field researchers, but it’s broadening the idea of who gets to go out and do science.”


To accomplish that goal, though, the team still needed a scientific topic that students would find engaging.

Enter the monkeyflower

Look closely enough and there’s a bit of luck in every science story. For David Lowry, an associate professor of plant biology, that luck shows up in the prologue. And it wasn’t entirely good.


An illustrated portrait of David Lowry
Monkeyflower researcher and Michigan State University Associate Professor David Lowry. Credit: May Napora/MSU

Before joining MSU in 2014, Lowry earned his doctorate studying with a pioneering monkeyflower expert named John Willis at Duke University. But back when Willis was earning his own doctorate, he was focused on a different plant.


One day, as the story goes, Willis’ parents visited him and he took them out to the field to show them his research plot. To his dismay, his plants had been trampled by an elk.


Looking around, though, he saw a healthy yellow monkeyflower, the Mimulus guttatus, and decided to pivot his research project. The rest is history.


“He decided to really pursue it,” Lowry says. “When I came to work for him, he said we’re going to make monkeyflowers the next Arabidopsis.”


Arabidopsis thaliana, also known as thale cress, is the model organism when it comes to plants. Scientists have studied it for more than a century and much of our understanding about plant genetics has its roots in Arabidopsis research.


Saying his team would bring monkeyflowers to this level was a big claim, but Willis and the scientists trained in his lab have backed it up.


“He never looked back,” Lowry says. “In the 20 years since coming to his lab, we really have turned monkeyflowers into an amazing plant for genetic studies.”


Now, leading his own team at MSU, Lowry is expanding the set of questions that science can ask of monkeyflowers. One of their latest questions is about how monkeyflowers have adapted to grow near salt water.


A grassy hill with many yellow monkeyflowers in bloom overlooks a beachy California shoreline. The Pacific Ocean stretches into the horizon, a touch darker than the cloudless blue sky.
Learn more about the research done by David Lowry and his team at Michigan State University in this video from 2022. Credit: Michael D-L Jordan/DLP

Salt is notoriously bad for plants, but certain species have evolved to thrive along ocean shores. Yellow monkeyflowers are one of those species, and the salt-tolerant versions of the plants are distinctive. They also look different from neighboring monkeyflowers that grow far enough away from salty ocean spray.


Lowry’s lab has an ongoing field study in California to explore why. But, as is often the case, addressing that simple question would require answering a host of more intricate queries.


For example, how do coastal plants know they’re on the coast and not inland? What’s enabling the coastal plants to shield themselves from sea salt? And how does all this show up in the plant’s genetics?


Serendipitously, Lowry met Bayer and her team just as his lab was starting to explore these questions and Health in Our Hands was getting ready to dive into its newest chapter.

Building a mystery

Before meeting Lowry, the Health in Our Hands team had already been developing lessons and resources to help teachers implement the new science standards.


Irene “Renee” Bayer, associate director of engagement at the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University
Irene “Renee” Bayer. Credit: Grace Tukurah

The team had started with middle school, implementing impactful changes to life science curricula by working with community partners. That includes the school community — teachers, students, parents — but also health professionals, faith leaders and more. These partnerships directly led to the topics that Health in Our Hands chose to explore.


“People learn best when they’re studying something that concerns them,” Bayer says. “Our partners help us in many ways, including finding what topics to study. They identified diabetes and substance use disorder.”


One of the broad areas of instruction in the modern standards is teaching how things grow and develop. A component of that is looking at hereditary traits and those that can be affected by the environment.


A photograph of Hildah Makori, who was a postdoctoral research associate and curriculum specialist with the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University
Hildah Makori. Credit: Courtesy of Hildah Makori

In the Health in Our Hands program, middle school students now meet these ideas in the context of diabetes, which is influenced by both family history and dietary factors. Next, they delve deeper into genetics through learning about substance use disorder.


“Our curriculum builds on itself in terms of complexity,” Makori says. “For high school, we move them to the next level to start thinking about evolution.”

The question was which topic could take them to that next level. By connecting with Lowry, the team now had access to a plant that was literally developed as a model to help answer genetic questions, including those related to evolution and adaptation.

“This comic personally gave me a click that sparked my curiosity.” - A student who participated in the new Health in Our Hands curriculum
A photograph of monkeyflower researcher and Michigan State University Associate Professor David Lowry
David Lowry. Credit: David Lowry

Clearly, monkeyflowers don’t present the pressing public health concerns that diabetes and substance use disorder do. But the team kept important social concepts, including representation in the sciences, at the fore with classwork and the comic book that aided instruction.


On top of that, the team saw how the topic could keep students in the driver’s seat of their learning experience.


“It’s sort of this mystery project where the characters in the comic book are trying to figure out why the plants are different,” Lowry says. To help the characters out, students start growing monkeyflowers in their classroom where they can set up different experiments to test their ideas.


“Then the students interact with the characters observing differences in the plants and writing hypotheses about how they’ve adapted, just like we would do in the lab,” Lowry says. “The students are doing fundamental science and inquiry-based research.”


A full-page spread in the comic book shows a series of letters — A, C, G and T — morphing into a DNA double helix. Little blob-like workers (one is wearing a hard hat and safety glasses) take sequences of that code and build 3-D shapes like cubes and cylinders representing amino acids. A panel shows a yellow monkeyflower growing from a seed into a mature plant. Beneath that, a bee flies over two cells with pastel-colored organelles.
An illustration from the “Mystery of the Monkeyflower” comic book developed by Michigan State University to help teach high schoolers about genes and adaptation. Credit: Michigan State University (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

‘I can do the same thing’


Before joining MSU as a research specialist, Consuelo Morales had earned her doctorate in secondary science education after teaching at both the middle school and high school levels. When she learned about the Health in Our Hands project, she knew it was the perfect fit for her.


An illustrated portrait of Consuelo Morales
Consuelo Morales, a research specialist at the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University. Credit: May Napora/MSU

“I wanted in on this project so badly. It was exactly what I was interested in: bringing the community into the schools and letting students become the experts,” Morales says. “I couldn’t have a better job.”


In addition to developing a new curriculum, Morales and her colleagues have been assessing the impact of their project. In this evaluation, they’ve employed a mixture of quantitative metrics and qualitative approaches, including surveys.


Morales recently shared the results of that assessment with other educators at an annual international conference hosted by the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. This is what Morales said in the abstract to that presentation.


“Students actively participated in learning by exploring the comic, generating robust classroom discussion,” she writes. “The synergy between the embedded comic and curriculum provides a model for curriculum creation and use.”


What that means is that the program is working, which is also echoed in the sentiments of the people who participated in the curriculum.


Consuelo Morales, a research specialist at the CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University
Consuelo Morales. Credit: Consuelo Morales

“This comic personally gave me a click that sparked my curiosity,” reads one student’s survey response.


“The comic book put a lot of vibrant and more creative vibes to the story instead of just looking at words, instead of just listening to the teacher talk,” says another.


Teachers also had positive reviews. In a survey, one remarked how helpful it was to have the comic to refer to. The students could see the comic’s characters doing something in the lab and realize, “I’m able to do this right here at my table and I can do the same thing,” the teacher says.


The teachers also appreciate the professional development sessions the team runs to help implement the curriculum, Morales says. In these sessions, teachers get to experience the lessons as learners.


Together, they figure out best practices for teaching with support from the CREATE for STEM team, mirroring the student-driven approach these teachers will bring to their classrooms.


“We’re practicing what we preach,” Morales says. “We teach professional learning just like anything else.”


Beyond the comic and the team’s approach, there’s one more key feature in the project’s successful pilot: the monkeyflowers.


“Both teachers and students have said the highlight was having the plants in the classroom,” Morales says. “The students can get really protective of their plants, and the teachers love that the students get so involved. Students who weren’t normally participating became very involved with taking care of the plants.”

The two main characters from the "Mystery of the Monkeyflower" comic book, Maia and William, sit in a green field surrounded by yellow monkeyflowers. Maia asks "Where is your sense of ambition, William, where's your curiosity?"
The main characters in the comic book, Maia and William, encourage each other — and students — to be curious. Credit: Michigan State University (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

This comes as no surprise to the team member who has devoted his professional life to studying the Mimulus guttatus.


“It’s a really nice partnership,” Lowry says. “I think the monkeyflowers are a cool component and having curriculum designers to work with is incredible.”


Last summer, Lowry’s team won a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue exploring evolutionary and genetic differences between coastal and inland monkeyflowers. Part of that grant also supports his work with Health in Our Hands.


So, the team will continue nurturing the program together, with the hopes that what it has planted in Flint will grow to communities across the country.


Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under award number R25GM132964 and by the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems of the National Science Foundation under award number 2153100. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or of the National Science Foundation.

By: Matt Davenport

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