Authentic Research Experiences and CUREs

Authentic Research Experiences (AREs) and Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) engage student scientists in foundational research happening at the Danforth Center. AREs include Plants Fight Back, Data Science, Mutant Millets, Genotype to Phenotype, Discovering Volvox Development, Green Means Grow, and MO Dirt, and most can be scaled for grade levels from middle school through college.

Plants Fight Back

Grade Levels: Middle school through college

Fungal diseases such as wheat head scab, wheat rusts, rice blast and sheath blight, soybean rust, banana black sigatoka are a major threat to food security and food safety. Some fungal pathogens produce mycotoxins that pose a major threat to human and animal health. Fungal diseases cause  12-15% yield loss in crops. The fungicide market will be a 17 billion industry by 2022. Fungal resistance to fungicides and environmental damage are major global challenges. In this authentic research experience, students will learn about the ways in which plants fight off fungal pathogens and how this is important to global food production. Students will have the opportunity to observe the effect of antifungal peptides such as defensins and understand how these peptides work to fight off fungal pathogens without the use of synthetic fungicides.

Data Science

This project will enhance scientific research skills of underrepresented racialized minority students through exposure to authentic STEM research, cutting-edge skills in image analysis, and data science techniques using image datasets from current scientific research studies in a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE). Project partners are the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (DDPSC), a non-academic, non-profit plant science research facility, and Harris-Stowe State University (HSSU), a local historically black college and university (HBCU). The project goal is to provide a change model for access to STEM research experiences (CUREs) for classrooms of racialized minority undergraduate students. Project objectives are focused on assessing HSSU students’ experiences and outcomes including gains in data science skills, attitudes toward STEM careers, self-efficacy and perception of research relevance, when engaged in a CURE focused on plant phenotyping and big data.

DDPSC has a rich digital data resource of over 8 million images and growing from current scientific research studies on crops and model plants that will engage entire classrooms of undergraduate students in authentic data analysis research experiences to build their data science competence and scientific research skills plus provide meaningful contributions to the research projects. HBCUs like HSSU are known for their wealth of social cultural capital, a critical support resource to students’ academic experiences. DDPSC scientists and education researchers will collaborate with HSSU faculty to design and implement a CURE that engages students in basic computer programming in Python to conduct digital image data processing and analysis using an open source software program built on general image analysis tools, PlantCV. DDPSC scientists and education researchers will participate in conducting the CURE through instructor training, technical support, online engagement with students and faculty, and will host some classes at DDPSC to foster the collaborative nature of the CURE between students and DDPSC scientists.

Mutant Millets

Grade Levels: High school and college

Our Mutant Millets program brings real science research into classrooms and allows students to begin engaging in the scientific process. In Mutant Millets, we focus on a plant called Setaria viridis, or green foxtail millet. While Setaria is often considered a weed, it is extremely valuable to scientific research. Not only is it related to economically important plants like corn and sugarcane, but scientists have also sequenced its entire genome, making it useful for comparative genomics with cereal crops. Through Mutant Millets, students can help our researchers identify mutant traits in Setaria plants, and contribute to our scientific research.

Mutant Millets equips teachers with professional development training, supplies, and laboratory-generated mutant seed populations of Setaria viridis for their students to grow in their classrooms to familiarize them with skills in scientific research. As data is collected, students will also input their findings that will be utilized by scientists at the Center.

Genotype to Phenotype

Grade Levels: Middle school through college

In this program, high school and college students can grow their own corn seedlings, learn ways to measure leaf angles, and contribute real data to the laboratory of Danforth Center Principal Investigator Andrea Eveland, Ph.D. Through this experience, teachers and students are trained in concepts of genetics as they relate to agriculture, food security, and data science.

Through Genotype to Phenotype, students will grow corn seedlings of hundreds of corn genotypes and measure the leaf angles manually and through image analysis. In a second exercise, students test for the presence of specific changes in the DNA of the corn plants in order to understand the correlation between these genotypic changes and the variation in the phenotypes (physical characteristics) of the plants. By screening hundreds of corn genotypes, students contribute molecular and phenotypic data that can help the Eveland lab develop predictive models to determine the leaf angle of an adult plant based on the seedling data.

Discovering Volvox Development

Grade Levels: Middle school through college

In our Discovering Volvox Development (DVD) program, middle and high school students can contribute to real scientific research happening at the Danforth Center. Through DVD, students will screen for developmental mutants in the green algae Volvox carteri. Volvox is a visually-engaging organism that students use for learning important lessons on the concept of organismal life cycles. Volvox is an experimentally tractable multicellular species with recently evolved germ and somatic cell types, which is under investigation in the laboratory of Danforth Center Principal Investigator Jim Umen to understand the origins of multicellularity.

The highly-visual nature of Volvox makes scientific research exciting for students. It is also easily cultured and screened for mutants, making DVD a great opportunity for students to engage in an authentic research experience. Students document their contributions by uploading their data to the DVD website that provides updates on how their Volvox discoveries are being utilized in the laboratory. Unique photos of Volvox mutants may also be chosen to be featured on our Instagram page! This program offers professional development to educators and supplies and support for classroom settings and for independent projects conducted at home by students.

Green Means Grow

Grade Levels: K-5

Green means grow is an activity for K-5th graders to learn how to design and build their own hydroponics system! Students will learn about food deserts, new urban agriculture techniques, and will have the opportunity to build multiple types of systems to grow food. Green Means Grow encourages teachers and  students to develop a small-scale garden where they can sprout seeds, nurture their own plants, and observe the intriguing growth of seedlings into mature plants. Plants are a great educational tool to promote science understanding and the use of life skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. Through designing and building their own hydroponic gardens to grow plants, students learn a range of science, engineering and mathematics concepts. These learning experiences can be easily linked to several Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for K-5th grade.

MO Dirt

Soil is alive. Do you know that there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans on Earth? We depend on the soil to produce most of our food, as well as fiber for clothes, medicines, building materials, and more. It is critical to maintain healthy soils and reduce soil disturbance in order to meet food production demands and reduce the impacts of climate change—especially since soil is considered a nonrenewable resource, as it takes hundreds to thousands of years to build up.

MO DIRT, Missourians Doing Impact Research Together, is a program that supports soil science education. Outreach events, high school projects, soil science curricula, professional development and soil health monitoring with citizen scientists have been conducted through this project. While we no longer train for this program, you can still visit the MODIRT website to explore this project and access the data collected.  

A Brighter Tomorrow

Through our authentic research experiences and course-based undergraduate research experiences, the Danforth Center is dedicated to supporting future and early-career scientists and believes in the power of education and outreach to create a better future for all. If you would like to support the next generation of scientists, click here to make a donation today.

Questions? Contact Us

Ash Kass

ARE/CURE Coordinator

Education Project Manager