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When science gets exciting

SUMMIT COUNTY – Though it may initially repel some students, dissection typically helps them get excited about science.

Summit Middle School seventh-graders Kelsey Roe, Bonnie Pierce, Travis Authier and Lacie Williams dissected sheep brains in their biology class last week.

“It’s nasty,” Pierce said. “It’s just nasty.”



But, she acknowledged later, dissection wasn’t as gross as she had expected.

Roe was OK with dissection as long as it wasn’t on a human part.



“It’s just wrong, dissecting my own type,” she said.

The dissection lab was courtesy of Colorado State University’s (CSU) traveling Mobile Investigations program. Terry O’Donnell, a Poudre school district teacher in residence at CSU, coordinates the outreach program which offers the local seventh-graders the opportunity to dissect hearts, brains and fecal matter, study the DNA in blood and examine different animal skulls.

The school wouldn’t be able to offer dissection labs like this, were it not for Mobile Investigations, said seventh-grade biology teacher Julie Scott. The lab supplies alone cost about $20,000, O’Donnell said.

The dissection labs are an important part of the science learning process for several reasons, Scott said. First, the hands-on lab is an effective tool for exciting the young students about science. And if they’re excited, they’re more likely to learn and remember.

“If I can hook emotion to learning, it sticks,” O’Donnell said.

Dissecting real animal parts also gives students a better understanding of how animals function than would a computer-simulation program, Scott said.

“You can’t take a computer program and grab a tendon and make a chicken wing flap,” she said. “I think (dissection is) the only effective way to teach certain things.”

Dissecting chicken bones helps illustrate the difference between bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, ligaments and tendons, for example – and how they all work together, she said.

Roe, Pierce, Authier and Williams dissected their sheep brains into the different brain sections – cerebrum, brain stem and cerebellum. Doing so gives them a better understanding of the different parts of the brain and how they affect the body, O’Donnell said.

To further illustrate the relationship between mind and body, O’Donnell brought with him several injured human brains for the kids to study. Once they learn the different functions of the various brain parts, they will understand how something like a tumor or an aneurysm in the left side of the brain would affect the right side of the body, he said.

“I like the cerebellum,” Roe said. “It does the coordination.”

Seventh-grader Daniel Lohrenz chose to dissect hearts instead of brains.

“I thought it would be fun to learn about hearts,” he said.

And he was right. Though Lohrenz typically enjoys science class, he found the dissection lab even more fun and interesting because it was hands-on, he said. Lohrenz isn’t sure that he’ll pursue science as a career and become a doctor or a scientist, but “it’s kind of opening my mind to what I could be if I wanted to.”

Kyah Windle, also a seventh-grader, didn’t want to dissect brains or hearts like some of her classmates. She dissected owl pellets (regurgitated matter) instead.

“I think the heart and brain sounded really gross and everything else sounded boring,” Windle said. “Dissection can be gross but it also can be cool.”

Though Windle wasn’t up for dissecting hearts or brains, she has dissected a frog and a chocolate chip cookie, she said. The frog was gross, the cookie cool.

Four of the six Mobile Investigations lab stations followed the biology class’ curriculum, Scott said, but the main goal of the dissection lab is to get kids – particularly girls – excited about science.

“The kids remember this,” she said. “I think it works. It gets them excited.”

Though popular with the students, it’s unlikely Mobile Investigations will return to Summit Middle School next year – or any other school, for that matter. In the three years since it began, the program has been funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education Grant. With the economic downturn and cutbacks, Mobile Investigations is losing its funding, O’Donnell said. Unless it can acquire another source of funding, the program will be discontinued.

For more information about the program, check the Center for Life Sciences Web site, http://www.colostate.edu/programs/lifesciense/.

Lu Snyder can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or lsnyder@summitdaily.com.


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