Two local teachers are among a dozen nationwide selected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its chief scientific agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), through the Texas A&M University Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) to receive stipends in recognition of their dynamic support of collaborative student education and outreach as part of the USDA Future Scientists Program.
Hillarie Rollins, a first-grade teacher at Forest Ridge Elementary School in the College Station Independent School District, and James Wood, a fourth-grade teacher at Anson Jones Elementary School in the Bryan Independent School District, joined teachers from Arkansas, California, Colorado and North Dakota in earning stipends ranging from $1,250 to $6,000 to support their classroom activities related to the Future Scientists Program, a 27-year collaboration between the USDA/ARS and the CMSE that aims to encourage student interest in science and potential STEM careers.
Future Scientists Program Director Craig Wilson describes the collective group as some of most dynamic teachers within the USDA Future Scientists Program, some of whom boast participation track records longer than a decade.
“As director of the USDA Future Scientists Program, I have the privilege to work with some of the most dynamic and innovative teachers across the United States,” said Wilson, a senior research scientist with the CMSE who earned his doctorate in education, curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M in 2001. “They go above and beyond the call of their profession and have gone even further over the past year with the extra challenges posed by COVID-19 restrictions.”
For more than a quarter century, Wilson has worked with teachers and local ARS scientists in their areas to help thousands of promising elementary, intermediate, middle and high school students across the nation gain first-hand insight into scientific research and possible future careers, courtesy of a common agricultural pest, the corn earworm. Each year, the program provides corn earworm caterpillars from the USDA/ARS insectary in Stoneville, Mississippi, free of charge to hundreds of schools upon request, enabling students ranging from Kindergarteners to high school seniors to study them and conduct related research. In the process of illustrating basic scientific concepts and the societal benefits of local agricultural research, they also hope to inspire the next generation of scientists.
“The challenge is to make learning relevant, and this initiative achieves that because it is based on cutting-edge USDA/ARS research,” Wilson said. “Our goal is to encourage students to stay interested in science and also get excited about science.”
Corn earworms, also known as tomato fruit worms or cotton bollworms, generally live, eat and breed inside corn husks during a relatively short life cycle lasting about one month. For precisely this reason, Wilson said, they make the perfect specimen for introduction into school science classrooms, where students and teachers can easily follow their complete progression from eggs to larvae to pupae to moths. The program’s focus on entomology also extends to the creation of Monarch butterfly pollinator gardens at schools as outdoor learning spaces.
“The goal is to enthuse students about science as a three-step process that requires them to develop their observation skills using all five senses plus common sense; to ask good questions; and to be able to design experiments to seek answers to their questions,” Wilson said.
Rollins says she plans to use her funding to enhance the existing butterfly garden at Forest Ridge Elementary and to provide teachers with hands-on science experiences for students.
“Our vision is BIG,” Rollins said. “We want to design and to improve our space so that it is not only inviting to butterflies and other pollinators but students as well. We plan on having our fourth-graders build the new planter boxes as one of their projects this year. The Kinder and first-graders team will be responsible for creating the space for the beautiful butterfly garden with stone pavers lining the walkway. Other grade levels will also have opportunities to help and be included in this exciting project.”
Wood also intends to extend the existing butterfly garden at Anson Jones Elementary while encouraging students to use drones to produce short videos explaining the project and articulating their ideas regarding possible solutions to related environmental threats, primarily pollution.
“STEM Club students are more aware than ever of the danger to the planet from pollution,” Wood said. “As we discussed the problem, students became more concerned about what the planet might be like if people continue to irresponsibly dispose of waste.”
Wilson says the stipends were met with widespread enthusiasm from the teachers as well as their students, who already are hard at work implementing their ideas. He shared the following representative comments from some of the grateful teachers at an elementary school in Colorado, a middle school in Arkansas, a high school in California and a district in North Dakota, respectively:
- “Thank you again so much for the science stipend. WOW! We have started to order and receive some science items from your generous funding. We are currently learning about magnets and invisible forces. My students have had the best time exploring with the magnet kit and building with the magnetic tiles. We are switching to a plant unit next and will use your root kit and other supplies.”
- “The science department at Lake Hamilton Middle School thanks you for the award to be spent on educational resources to be used in and out of the classroom to improve and enhance teaching practices. We are also developing a large butterfly garden. Already, garden boxes are being built for us by the high school Ag class.”
- “Thank you again for the opportunity here. As you know, my main focus with my classes that you have visited is preparing them to do original research projects from beginning to end. The binoculars will be used for survey work on campus and at the river. The plant light houses will be used for research projects by students who choose not to work with the insects.”
- “I was a rookie at the technique, but the equipment you allowed us to purchase is fantastic, and our students are now skilled in PCR [polymerase chain reaction] and gel electrophoresis. They would never have had that opportunity if it wasn’t for you and Texas A&M! The equipment is so nice and easy for teacher prep. SO cool — THANK YOU!!!”
To date, Wilson has worked with teachers in all 50 states as well as Puerto Rico under the Future Scientists initiative, which he most recently expanded to Panama. He says the appeal of introducing new generations to the wonders of science and sparking their curiosity about the world around them never gets old, even after nearly 30 years spent traveling the country and globe as an advocate for science education and ambassador for general awareness of and greater involvement in one’s own community, which often centers around local schools.
“All too often, the good things that happen in schools go unnoticed,” Wilson said. “It is teachers like these who exemplify the best of the profession. They work tirelessly on behalf of their students, and it is an honor for the USDA/ARS and the Center for Mathematics and Science Education to be able to help them and to use seed money to grow the next generation of dynamic future scientists.”
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Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Craig Wilson, (979) 260-9227 or email@example.com