Third Graders Explore Genetics, Hybrid Poplars and Locally Grown Biofuels

Jay Wells presents bioenergy lessons to third graders in Hillsboro

 - Story and photos by Adriene Koett-Cronn

Nearly 100 third graders from Jackson Elementary School in Hillsboro took part in a hands-on bioenergy discovery day. The eager young scientists learned about genetics, hybrid poplar trees and how biomass from trees and other plants are converted into renewable fuels and chemicals. The event, held March 31 at the school, was presented by Oregon State University’s Bioenergy Education Initiative and GreenWood Resources’ science team.


The day began with a high energy, introduction to genetics by Brian Stanton, Chief Science Officer at GreenWood Resources and AHB feedstock team lead.  GreenWood is an Oregon company that manages tree farms worldwide.  He explained the basics including constructing phenotypes and genotypes; how scientists use these concepts in plant breeding; and how researchers at GreenWood Resources use genetics to develop fast-growing hybrid poplar varieties which are used to make biofuels. Mary Hall, the lead third-grade teacher at Jackson Elementary said, “The background knowledge Brian included really gave the students a sense of the important science behind trees raised for wood, biofuel, and paper.”

The students then got to roll up their sleeves and do a set of experiments organized by OSU’s Bioenergy Education Initiative team which educates K-12 students and undergraduates at OSU about bioenergy. Jay Well, the Education Coordinator for the team, said, “We all learn best by doing. So, hands-on experiences like what we are doing at this event have a tremendous impact on students and their retention.”

Students began by making mini-bioreactors in plastic bags. The feedstock was table sugar, and the reaction materials were yeast and warm water. After about 20 minutes the plastic bags puffed up, some to almost bursting, from the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast processing the sugar. The yeast also produced a small amount of alcohol which, while not visible, was evident by its smell. Students connected the chemistry occurring in their mini-bioreactors to what happens in a commercial, full-sized bioreactors where starch, and cellulose in plants is broken down into simple sugars using heat, enzymes, and chemicals, then fermented to make renewable fuels and chemicals.

In the second experiment, students extracted DNA from strawberries. They first mashed the strawberries into a pulp. Then they created a buffer from dish soap and salt and added it to the strawberries to break down the membrane walls in the strawberry cells. Using coffee filters and teamwork the young scientists extracted the liquid from the strawberry/buffer mix. Finally, they precipitated the DNA from the strawberry liquid by adding isopropyl alcohol. Within moments, the DNA and proteins bubbled together to make foamy, cobwebs much to the delight of the students.

“The bioreactors expanding before their eyes and the ‘oohs and awes’ heard when the strawberry DNA coalesced in the cup were a true measure of the excitement. Every student was hooked on the magic of science today,” reflected Hall.

To wrap up the interactive science day, Stanton and his team showed students 24 young hybrid poplars they brought to the school. The trees included four samples of six different genotypes. The students’ project over the next six weeks will be to care for the trees and measure and observe key phenotypes such as growth rate, leaf shape, stem color, and resin fragrance. They were also challenged to use their findings to match the phenotypes with the correct genotype. This long-term observation lesson closely mimics the work of plant geneticists. Later this spring students will go on a field trip to GreenWood Resources’ research center and see how these trees are bred and cultivated for biofuel production.

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

Hall echoed this thought as she excitedly observed her students taking notes, labeling diagrams, asking thoughtful questions and thinking creatively about ways they could go about matching the phenotypes and genotypes over the next six weeks. “How delightful to discover genetics playing a vital role in the vibrant biofuels production industry flourishing in our home state of Oregon!  Who knew?” said Hall. “Several students were also exceptionally inspired by the idea that trees, which scrub our air and create habitats for wildlife, could also be cultivated for a clean source of energy.”

The Bioenergy Education Initiative plans to publish the activities from this event online, and GreenWood Resources has offered to provide starts to classrooms wanting to replicate the lesson.

Both the Bioenergy Education Initiative and GreenWood Resources are collaborators in a grant supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The multi-faceted grant is coordinated by Advanced Hardwoods Biofuels and involves partners throughout the Northwest in research, industry, extension and education.