Lincoln students ‘step up’ in new science lab

The Walla Walla high school’s new $95,000 lab and curriculum is part of Project Lead the Way.

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WALLA WALLA — A former computer lab at Lincoln High School has been transformed into a modern science laboratory.

The lab and adjoining classroom are the hub of science instruction at Lincoln, reaching all students for lessons exploring biomedical sciences.

The $95,000 lab and new curriculum is part of Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit established in 1997 to address a shortage of students studying engineering at the college level, according to it’s website. The program launched in upstate New York with 12 high schools and now has more than 4,700 middle and high schools participating across the country.

The program represents a national push to use STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — to prepare students for higher education and toward STEM careers.

The Lincoln lab renovation was funded through $35,000 in grants, and about $60,000 from the district’s basic fund. That covered upgrades of the space to include sinks and plumbing to support lab projects, new lab stations and storage, flooring, paint and computers, software and curriculum. Construction started in the summer of 2012.

The redesigned space is a marked upgrade from the small room and outdated supplies Lincoln science teacher Erik Gordon had been using just last year.

When he learned about Project Lead the Way, with it’s rigorous curriculum and detailed lessons, he was skeptical it would work for Lincoln’s students.

Lincoln, with just over 150 students, is an alternative to Walla Walla High School, serving credit-deficient students who are often low-income, and often facing personal challenges.

“At first I thought, no way, this is way too challenging for our kids,” Gordon said. He changed his mind when he heard a presentation by Trevor Greene, principal of Toppenish High School.

Greene has helped boost graduation rates, and gotten almost all students college bound through his Yakima Valley school’s Project Lead the Way program and a strong focus on STEM. His efforts earned him recognition as the 2013 National High School Principal of the Year, awarded by MetLife and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Toppenish students have succeeded despite an almost entirely low-income student population, nearly all either Hispanic or Yakama Indian. Gordon said he saw how the program could work for Lincoln students.

Lincoln is taking part in the project’s biomedical sciences program. Students are exploring human medicine, bioinformatics, cell biology, genetics, disease and other topics. The curriculum complements traditional science classes and gets students ready for college courses and careers in biomedical sciences.

On Wednesday, Lincoln students were following up a unit on sickle-cell anaemia by examining slides of red and white blood cells under a microscope.

Students rose from their desks after an overview and discussion from Gordon, put on white lab coats and took their places at lab stations. They sat in pairs while AmeriCorps volunteer Josh Lee explained how to properly use microscopes and make precision focusing adjustments.

“The biggest thing I’m expecting from you in the lab today is to go step by step,” Gordon reminded his students.

Gordon said about 60 percent of the curriculum is hands-on or lab based. The remainder includes brief discussions and lectures to explain each unit.

The students have so far extracted DNA from fruit for a study of diabetes. Next they will be crack open cancer cells to look at chromosomes. Next year students will explore human body systems.

Gordon said they can anticipate dissecting organs and muscle, and using skeletal remains to study gender and cause of death. Then they will put the skeleton back together.

Lincoln student Daniel Davis, 16, said one memorable project this year involved setting food ablaze.

“We burned food to see how much energy it had in it, and which ones burned longer,” he said, adding he was surprised by the results.

“Usually the more healthy ones burned longer than, like, hot Cheetos,” he said.

Gordon and Lincoln Principal Jim Sporleder said students are taking pride in the new facility and demonstrating interest that otherwise could have been absent if they had to work with outdated or broken-down equipment.

“When they’re in a very professional, high level of a lab, they step up,” Gordon said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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