Textbooks have nothing on Judson program

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 31, 2005

MARION – It’s one thing to study nature in a biology book. It’s quite another to study it out in nature, as one class of Southern Academy biology students found out Friday.

Thanks to the Judson College high school outreach program GENEius, Judy Bonds’s 10th-grade biology class spent Friday morning in the great outdoors, getting a hands-on education in water quality. The class was bussed from Judson to Marion’s Perry Lakes Park, where they used chemical water-testing kits provided by the GENEius program to scientifically determine the environmental health of the park’s waters.

“We want to get kids excited about scientific things without standing up and saying ‘Look, this is science'” said Dr. Brian Burnes, assistant professor of biology at Judson and director of the GENEius program. “We sneak up on ’em. We let them get hands-on and enjoying themselves before they realize they’re doing something ‘scientific.'”

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For Ms. Bonds’s class, that scientific thing was the testing of natural water samples. Students learned how to collect samples (no bubbles), add various indicator chemicals (using the “pipette”), and mix those chemicals into their samples (swirl the test tube) before recording the results onto worksheets. Depending on factors like color changes and silt settlement, the students could measure the water’s acidity, alkalinity, turbidity, and several other indicators of the water’s quality. Too much alkalinity or acidity could mean the presence of pollutants.

“It’s nice to get them out of the classroom and exposed to something different,” said Bonds. “We have so much to cover in biology, that we don’t really have time to study ecology as a subject. This is a way for them to do that. And they can have a lot of fun with it.”

Of course, some of that fun did come from a frog placed on the back of a jacket and the mispronunciation of the word “titration” (it’s supposed to be “tie-tray-shun”). But that didn’t keep the students from oohing and aahing as a test tube’s water turned bright pink, or from making multiple attempts to take an air-free sample from a park lake.

“They kept their attention through the entire experiment,” said student assistant Heather Walls, a Judson senior majoring in biology. “We’ve done GENEius in the lab, doing chemistry and genetics, and it’s nice. But it’s more fun for everyone when the students get to come outside.”

Most of the immediate supervision of the students’ experiments is done by Judson biology students like Walls. According to Southern Academy ecology teacher Melissa Wilks, the involvement of Judson students is one reason the program has been so successful.

“Getting to interact with Judson students gives them a nice break from seeing the same teacher every day,” she said. “Sometimes you can learn more from hearing it from a different person.”

Burnes enjoys the program most, he says, for the benefit it gives both students and teachers. “[The students] just don’t get exposed to this kind of science. One reason is money…so many schools can’t afford the equipment or access we have. Another is curriculum limitations. Teachers often just have no way to fit this in. It’s great that we can sort of take that burden off the teacher.”