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With UCR, high school freshmen will be researchers


With UCR, high school freshmen will be researchers

(November 6, 2000)

Thirty-five freshmen at Arlington High School in Riverside will have a chance to contribute to agricultural genomics research because of a hands-on partnership with the University of California, Riverside.

TIERRA, a new magnet program at Arlington High, is an innovative four-year course in intensive science-related curriculum.  It is a 'school within a school' with block scheduling and a team of teachers that stay with the students through four years of high school. The money for the program comes from a California Department of Education grant won by Arlington High School.

Timothy Close, associate professor of genetics at UCR, has asked these high school students to help map the genetic structure of wheat and barley in two projects funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation. The students will use an automated DNA sequencer and other scientific equipment purchased by the TIERRA program to map the genomes of these important food plants in their own classroom.  

The genomics work completed by the TIERRA students will be checked by Close and Arlington teachers, and then entered into databases used by plant geneticists all over the world. 

'This will allow students to work with scientists, and see what it feels like to make real discoveries,' said Dick Diamond, a veteran social studies teacher who coordinates TIERRA. 'They will be making a true contribution,' he said.

In September, the ninth-graders and their teachers toured UCR to look at the entomology and plant sciences facilities that give UCR a national reputation for excellence in the biological sciences.

'We have the whole support of UCR behind us,' said Diamond.  He said UCR Professor Noel T. Keen, who holds an endowed chair in molecular biology, traveled to Sacramento to testify on behalf of the TIERRA program, which helped convince state officials to fund the program. Also, Arlington science teachers learned important techniques of molecular genetics from Patricia Springer, an assistant professor of genetics at UCR.

Close, who visits the Arlington classroom periodically, said this kind of partnership is valuable not only to the high school students, but to the scientific community. He said plant genomics research, an important tool in the fight against world hunger, can be accelerated by bright high school students, and other non-scientists.

'Scientists must sequence tens of thousands of individual plant genes, a job that is repetitive and to a large extent can be automated,' Close said.  'But each gene is also an individual unit with its own interesting variations in plant populations. The missing ingredient is individualized attention to biological details, the kind of thing that can come only from an interested human mind.'

Once scientists understand the individual genes, and the genome as a whole, plant breeders will be able to deliver new plant varieties that withstand disease, grow in harsher conditions and produce better quality food.

'High school students offer brain power and enthusiasm,' Close said. 'In return, they gain career skills and a look at the scientific world. This is the right resource to help the science move forward, because everyone gains something of value.'

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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