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Source: Carolyn Ferguson, 785-532-3166,
Note to editor: The official name of the National Science Foundation program is Graduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12).
News release prepared by: Stephanie Jacques, 785-532-0101,

Monday, Dec. 20, 2010


MANHATTAN -- Research by Susan Rolfsmeier, a Kansas State University graduate student in biology, and Svetlana Ovchinnikova, a Russian botanist, is finding its way into Rebecca Steiger's class at Junction City High School.

Rolfsmeier and Steiger traveled to Russia last summer to visit with Ovchinnikova about Lappula, a group of plants found in North America and Eurasia. The trip was funded by the National Science Foundation's Graduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Fellows in K-12 Education program.

Although Rolfsmeier and Ovchinnikova are studying how the species have evolved across the two continents -- which may lead to revisions of the phylogenetic tree for the group -- it is Steiger's shadowing of Rolfsmeier during their expedition to Russia that provided a special twist for the classroom.

"My advanced placement biology class is studying green plants and the diversity across ecosystems," Steiger said. "Susan and I plan to help students see how collaboration is helping her research sort out similarities and differences between species here and in Siberia. We also hope to bring some PCR, polymerse chain reaction, data to the class for further examination and to relate it back to the phylogeny studies."

Steiger and Rolfsmeier are working together as part of an Evidence-based Inquiry into the Distant, Remote or Past, EIDRoP, from the National Science Foundation's GK-12 program, one of two such graduate training programs at K-State. The EIDRoP program fosters collaboration between teachers at Junction City High School and K-State graduate students.

"Graduate student fellows like Susan bring their research into classrooms, and must communicate what they do and why it is important in a way that a non-specialist can understand," said Carolyn Ferguson, director of the EIDRoP GK-12 program and associate professor of biology. "It's a wonderful opportunity to enhance the training of our graduate students while taking advantage of excellence in the public schools, providing professional development opportunities for teachers, and benefiting high school students."

The Russia trip gave Rolfsmeier more experience as a scientist, enhanced the research on Lappula, and helped Steiger clarify scientific definitions that are often misrepresented in the classroom.

"Because of my experience in Russia, I have re-examined my definition of a species," Steiger said. "In the high school classroom we often present the concept as something fixed and already defined for eternity. However, I am aware that a species must be defined, and it's also in a state of flux, dependent upon the researchers' conclusions and collaboration."

Rolfsmeier is trying to determine which of the North American species of Lappula are native to the continent and how they relate to the Eurasian species, a set of questions that have been unanswered since the late 19th century. She began corresponding with Ovchinnikova, the only other person actively investigating these species, in hopes each provide their own unique insights toward answering the questions.

"The trip seemed like an excellent opportunity to bring scientists from opposite sides of the world together, as well as to include a teacher who could shadow my research, consider cross-cultural science practices, and bring these experiences back into the classroom as a way to inspire students," Rolfsmeier said.

While on their trip Steiger had the opportunity to speak with a Russian teacher. Although the language barrier was a major factor, both Rolfsmeier and Steiger found ways around it to learn more about the similarities and differences in both teaching and research.

"The Russian teacher didn't speak English, and I barely speak any Russian, but the language of science got us through," Steiger said. "Turns out both English and Russian science classes use the same Latin bases, so many words are similar, and we figured out that the curriculum is fairly parallel."

Rolfsmeir and Steiger also brought back stories and artifacts from Russia to share in the classroom.

"I think our stories have piqued their interest about Susan's research," Steiger said. "It has also opened their eyes to the process of collaboration and some of the challenges and rewards that go along with that process. They especially liked the chocolate we brought back for them."

The EIDRoP GK-12 program is a collaborative project between numerous academic units at K-State, including the Division of Biology, the Center for Science Education and the departments of physics, chemistry, entomology, geology and philosophy. It's administered through the Division of Biology. More information about the program is online at