Inspired Students Research Genetics and Bioenergy

Girl measauing tree at GreenWood Resources field trip
-Story and photos by Adriene Koett-Cronn

See video Growing Bioenergy: A Teacher's Perspective

“I can’t wait to see a world of bioeverything!” shouted Finneus a third grader, from Jackson Elementary School in Hillsboro. He was one of nearly a hundred third grade scientists who gathered at GreenWood Resources in Westport, Oregon to present their findings. The field trip was the finale of a nine-week genetics unit studying hybrid poplars.

It Began with a Discovery Day

The budding scientists began their exploration of genetics and bioenergy concepts during a hands-on discovery day held at their school in March.  During that event, students were treated to a high-energy, crash course in genetics by Brian Stanton, the Chief Science Officer at GreenWood Resources and leader of the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels (AHB) feedstock team. Stanton introduced the concepts of phenotypes and genotypes; described how scientists use these concepts in plant breeding; and explained how researchers at GreenWood Resources use genetics to develop fast-growing hybrid poplar trees that are used to make biofuels and other chemicals.

The students then performed a set of hands-on experiments with members of Oregon State University's Bioenergy Education Initiative, also partners in the AHB consortium. These activities paved the way for learning about locally grown bioenergy. They included extracting DNA from strawberries and discussing how scientists use genetics to breed hybrid poplar trees; learning how plants store the sun’s energy as sugar, which can be converted into renewable fuels and chemicals; and making mini-bioreactors to demonstrate the fermentation chemistry in commercial-sized bioreactors.

“The ‘oohs and awes’ heard when the bioreactors were expanding before their eyes, and when the strawberry DNA coalesced in the cup, were true measures of their excitement. Every student was hooked on the magic of science,” reflected Mary Hall, the lead teacher at Jackson Elementary. The Research Challenge
At the close of the discovery day, students were assigned a nine-week research project. Their job was to care for the 24 hybrid poplars seedlings GreenWood Resources had brought to the school. The trees included four trees from six different genotypes. Students had to observe a series of phenotype characteristics (leaf shape, color, tree height, petiole length, etc.) of the trees and keep careful notes. Based on these observations, students were challenged to group the trees based on similar phenotypes and match them to their genotypes.

Each team of students was assigned a plant that they had to care for the duration of the unit. They watered the trees daily with precise amounts of water, gently raked the top of the soil to prevent caking and made sure the plants received sufficient light. Hall said students took their responsibility for the trees’ care seriously. Some students even took to talking to their plants and gently petting the plants. “It was like we had classroom green pets. The students were so attached to these trees.” Under the young scientists' care, the trees thrived. Over the nine weeks, students recorded their observations about the trees’ phenotypes, keeping detailed notes, taking measurements and charting the trees’ growth and other changes.

The cross-curricular unit touched an array of subject areas including biology, botany, language arts and math. Elements of geography were woven into the unit when students had to identify the native regions of the different parent plants and the conditions in which they thrive. Even economics became a part of the unit, as students learned how locally grown trees are harvested to produce renewable fuels and chemicals and provide local jobs.

Field Trip Show and Tell

During the June field trip, the students’ shared their weeks of work with researchers at GreenWood Resources. They gave presentations on their observations and conclusions regarding how the trees were grouped based on phenotypes and how they used that information to match trees to their genotypes. Said Hall, “We have future botanists, geneticists, and scientists as a result of this project!  I have a few students who are especially captivated by the idea that biofuels help reduce our carbon footprint, because trees take in carbon dioxide and that biofuels burn more cleanly--the future is bright with these keen minds.”

Staff and researchers at GreenWood Resources set up stations around the tree farm to demonstrate how they create hybrid crosses of trees and grow them from seed. Students had a chance to pull the “cotton” from the poplar catkins and observed how the tiny seeds are harvested using a high-pressure air hose. Those seeds are then painstakingly planted, grown and used as cutting material to produce thousands of hybrid trees.

The students walked among the acres of trees learning how they are cared for and continuously monitored and measured. Staff showed the student's how to read growth rings, how light meters measure the amount of light in a stand of trees, and different ways to measure a tree's growth.

Said Stanton of the student scientists, “GreenWood is thrilled to see so much enthusiasm among the students for what we are doing here at GreenWood, and for developing a renewable and sustainable source of biomass energy feedstock for Oregon’s future biofuels industry.”

Hall echoed this thought as she excitedly reported on her students taking notes, labeling diagrams, asking thoughtful questions and thinking creatively throughout the nine-week unit.

The students were eager to share their thoughts about the tree farm and bioenergy. Grace G. said, “It inspires me, when I get older, to learn more about making biofuels and genetics to help the work with biofuels.” Bronwynn, who was clearly captivated by the farm and said, “I’m going to make a tree farm and go to Oregon State University.” And, finally, Bri offered this sentiment, “GreenWood Resources makes the world a better place.”

The Bioenergy Education Initiative has published a lesson based on this collaborative project for teachers, titled Growing Bioenergy. It can be download for free from their website. GreenWood Resources has also generously offered to provide cuttings to Northwest classrooms wanting to replicate the lesson.