Community Research Partnership Inspires Young Scientists from Rural Kentucky
Fourth and fifth grade students who partnered with University of Kentucky researchers to study circadian rhythms, or body clocks, were recently rewarded with a trip to campus to get a glimpse of college life and what it's like to work as a scientist.
in Fall 2014, more than 100 students from Manchester and Oneida Elementary Schools in Clay County, Ky. became scientists alongside the research team of Jody Clasey, PhD, professor of kinesiology and health promotion, and Karyn Esser, PhD, professor of physiology. For one week the students wore Fitbits and temperature monitors and recorded their daily activity, sleep and eating habits in a data notebook.
Clasey and Esser are currently analyzing the extensive amount of data collected by the Clay County students in order to learn more about the relationship between circadian rhythms, activity, eating, and weight in children. The project is funded by a pilot grant from the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science. Additional support is provided by the UK Barnstable Brown Diabetes and Obesity Center, the UK Center for Muscle Biology and the UK Pediatric Exercise Laboratory.
A community partnership from the beginning, the UK research team and Clay County educators worked together to plan the project in a way that would be beneficial to everyone involved. For Clay County educators, the collaboration presented a unique educational opportunity for their students to get hands-on experience with the scientific process.
"With the introduction of the next generation science standards, we're moving away from learning science in a book. But instead, we want kids to learn how to do science, be a part of science, and what better way than to be a researcher in your own science project," said Deann Allen, instructional supervisor, district assessment coordinator, and district health coordinator for Clay County public schools. "We can be developing the next generation of engineers and scientists right here in Appalachia."
Teachers at Manchester and Oneida incorporated the project into science and math lessons to enhance their own curriculum, and the students will write reports when the data is analyzed.
"Each day they would record their sleep time, what they had for breakfast. It was all on a schedule," said Leisa Frazier, a third grade science teacher at Oneida Elementary School. "We used a lot of charts and we graphed results — how many people brought their buttons back, maybe how many people went to bed at so and so time, and we compared those as we went along the cycle."
Incorporating the project across the curriculum allowed students to make connections between subjects like math, science, and English, an integrated approach often missing from traditional classroom instruction segregated by subject area.
"When a child sees it across the curriculum — when you tie it in to your science, and then we had it in our math classes--then they can relate and make connections," said Frazier. "And you know, that's what learning is all about — making that connection."
Frazier and other educators in Clay County also saw that the students were excited and proud to be "doing science" with UK researchers.
"They walked taller. They walked bolder. During the seven day Fitbit wearing, we had a home ball game, a football game. And I looked over and I saw all these kids with their little wristbands, and they were showing them to other kids, like 'Hey I'm doing this research, I'm a researcher,'" said Allen.
The collaboration additionally presented an opportunity to energize students about attending college and expose them to various careers in the sciences. Monetarily compensating research participants is standard practice, but Allen suggested that a better reward would be a field trip to UK's campus so the students could get a glimpse of college life and the many professional opportunities in science. During their visit, the students visited dorms and the William T. Young Library and ate lunch in Blazer Hall. In their VIP lab tours, the students saw their heartbeats on monitors, examined slides under microscopes, learned how planes are built, and even held a human brain.
"For the students…it opens their eyes," said Allen. "It gives them a reason to continue on in their education. It gives them a purpose to be career ready. Research shows students start thinking of dropping out in third, fourth, fifth grade. We've stopped that right in the middle… They’re going to understand that the world is open. All they have to do is get that education, get college and career ready, and there’s a whole world open to them."
While on campus in April, the students also had a private audience with UK President Eli Capilouto. Their questions for him ranged from the cost of tuition and availability of financial aid to the names of his dogs and why squirrels on campus don't seem afraid of humans. Some students announced that they wanted to be UK students in the future.
“Hands on engagement in the learning and discovery process is a powerful motivator for young minds. It encourages students to explore the unknown and connects them in a tangible way to the value of education,” said Capilouto. “When we met, they shared with me their stories as young researchers and enthusiasm for learning. It was a profound reminder of how UK shapes the people and places we touch, and the necessity of encouraging Kentucky’s sons and daughters to aspire to high achievement."
One member of the UK research team has been a particular inspiration for the students. Jill Day, EdD, is a Clay County native turned UK graduate and now UK lecturer. She helped facilitate the research partnership between the university and her hometown, acutely aware that the experience could have a profound and lifelong impact on the students. Many of the students would be the first in their families to attend college, and many hadn't traveled far beyond their home county before the trip to UK.
"To be able to go back there and show these kids, you know what? If I can do this, then you can do this. This is nothing that is limited to me. You can go and get your education and if you want to come back here, you can do that. You can make a difference in your community," Day said. "I told them I was in their position — 20 years ago I was exactly where you were, a student in this school system."
Frazier recalls a comment from one of her female students who looked up to Day.
"Her exact quote was 'I can't believe that someone from our small town has went this big' and that gives me hope that [Day] did make a difference in that child. And who knows what the future holds for her," said Frazier.
"I really believe that this experience could change someone's life," said Day. "When they see that there are things they can do on this campus, to get them excited hopefully about their education, and continuing it for as long as they can, I think it may honestly be something that we will never know —- the impact that it has many year from now. "
For Clasey, learning more about circadian rhythms and weight in children will be beneficial outcome of the project, but she hopes for other repercussions, too.
"My real long term goal is that maybe in a few years I’ll have one or more of the Clay County Clock Study children sitting in my classroom and they’ll say 'I remember when we came to UK to see what you do as scientist,'" she said. "To have that kind of impact and then to actually see that happen--that would be incredible."
This story continues our coverage of the Clay County Clock Study. See the first segment of the story & video here.
This story is part of an ongoing series exploring how UK is working with communities in Appalachia. Read more at Rooted in Our Communities: The University of Kentucky.