Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists

Our K-12 programs and curricula aim to engage diverse students to explore STEM concepts. Through virtual laboratories, professional development training for teachers, and authentic research experiences, we are increasing the accessibility of plant science education opportunities. Our Education Research and Outreach Lab bases our outreach on cutting-edge research questions that continually increase our understanding of how students learn STEM.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center Partnership

Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee believes every youth should be given the opportunity to achieve greatness. That's why she founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center in East St. Louis, which is a safe learning center where youth are instilled with the dream, drive, and determination to succeed in academics, athletics, and leadership.

Inspired by Joyner-Kersee’s passion to empower her community, new partners including the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center have joined efforts to establish the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Food, Agriculture, and Nutrition Innovation Center or JJK-FAN.

The Danforth Center is providing STEAM+Ag curriculum with authentic research experiences for K-12 students in genetics, molecular biology, and image analytics. We also offer internships for high school students at Danforth Center labs. Researchers from the Danforth Center help open new avenues for youth in the areas of agriculture, food, STEM, and college and career readiness.

JJK FAN Center

Research Opportunities for High School Students

Become an Intern!

Are you a high school student interested in STEAM research? Apply to our high school internship program to work in a plant and agricultural research center. You will have the opportunity to get hands-on research experience by collecting data, collaborating with teammates, disseminating your results and learning from scientists.

Prior to applying for an internship, it is important to understand the type of research being done in the labs at the Center. On the application (question 16), you will be asked to list up to three labs that match your research interests, and why. To get you started, you can see the research areas at the Danforth Center. We then invite you to look through our list of Principal Investigators (PIs) to determine which labs align with your interests.

Things to think about: Our scientists work in various settings. Some work in a traditional or “wet” laboratory, doing bench research. Others work in outdoor field plots, or in greenhouses. Some do most of their work computationally. Often there is a combination of all of these modalities. Which setting, or “modality”, fits with your interests?

Students must be 16 years or older to apply.

The 2023 high school summer internship application is now closed. Candidates will receive a response by May 20, 2023.

Questions about high school internships? Contact Shannon Gabbert.

Agriculture & Food

Empowering students to grow their own food.

Green Means Grow
For students living in food deserts, it can be challenging to connect the food on their plate to the plants that produce the actual food they are eating. Through Green Means Grow, we aim to empower K-5th grade students living in urban and rural food deserts to have agency over growing their own food.

Schools or teachers can enroll their students in an Indoor-Garden-Design-and-Build activity challenge that is facilitated and resourced by our Education Research and Outreach program and funded in partnership with Boeing and other donors.

During the activity, students will:

  1. Learn about basic plant anatomy and physiology and what resources plants need for healthy growth.
  2. Design and prototype an indoor hydroponic system that meets the needs of plants for growth and development.
  3. Grow plants for 4-6 weeks in the prototype hydroponic system.
  4. Collect data on plant growth and compare plant size across classrooms to determine which prototype system produced the most abundant food.

Watch this video to learn how to build a simple hydroponic system using recycled materials.

Authentic Research Experiences

Engaging student scientists in foundational research happening at the Danforth Center.

Mutant Millets
Did you know students contribute to foundational research happening at the Danforth Center? 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 an economically important plants like corn and sugarcane, but scientists have also sequenced its entire genome, making it useful for comparative genomics with cereal crops.

At the Danforth Center, scientists have over 3,000 different Setaria viridis mutant families. Mutant plants are those whose genetic make-up has been changed, and mutations help scientists identify and study the functions of genes. Through Mutant Millets, students can help our researches 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. Learn more about Mutant Millets.

Discovering Volvox Development
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 development 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. This program offers professional development to educators and supplies and support for classroom settings and for independent projects conducted at home by students.

Contact Ash Kass to get started with DVD.

Genotype to Phenotype
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.

Leaf angle in corn plants plays a role in determining plant density (how many plants can be grown per acre) and yield (the number of ears of corn that are produced per acre). In Dr.  Eveland’s Lab, research is being conducted to identify genetic factors that regulate the variation in leaf angle. 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.

Contact Ash Kass to get started with Genotype to Phenotype.

Soil Health and MO DIRT - Missourians Doing Impact Research Together
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. Soil contains the largest storage of carbon on the terrestrial portion of the planet and is therefore important in climate dynamics. If the soil is disturbed due to agricultural management, burns, construction, flooding, or other actions, greater amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere contributing to rising global temperatures and affecting weather and climate patterns. Thus 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. Visit the MODIRT website to explore this project.  You will find soil science curriculum, other educational resources, Missouri soil health data and protocols to monitor soil health for free download.

Education Technology

Using cutting-edge technology to inspire students to pursue STEM careers.

STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) uses augmented and virtual reality to help connect design with science and technology. Through this program, students create 3D models of plant objects in collaborative teams. Each team consists of a self-identified scientist, technophile, and artist who have to work together to complete the model. Through this collaboration, students learn that art and design are an essential part of science. Students will visit the Danforth Center, interact with researchers, and present their projects to Danforth Center scientists. By integrating design and technology through STEAM, we can prepare a diverse group of students for STEM careers.

Through this program, our Education Research lab will examine how students can benefit from innovative learning experiences in plant science, and how these experiences improve student attitudes towards STEAM subjects and interests in STEM careers.

Virtual Laboratories
Due to the limited resource availability of rural schools to science research facilities and scientific laboratories, rural schools have disproportionately low student STEM engagement. Using Virtual Reality, we want to make science education accessible in rural high schools throughout Missouri. Our Virtual Laboratories utilize technology like electronic tablets, laptops, Smart phones, VR headgear and controllers, and zSpace systems to make scientific research an immersive experience in all types of classrooms.

With virtual laboratories, students will learn to interact with real data collected by Danforth Center scientists. They will use virtual and augmented reality platforms, experience “science-in-the-making” and engage in authentic problem solving. The VR lab environment will foster students' engagement in science practice and collaboration, with interactivity that allows students to feel immersed in the laboratory setting. It will also allow students the autonomy to make choices that influence outcomes positively or negatively with the freedom to fail.

 Educational Technology Professional Development
Our Education Research Lab is currently training teachers to learn to interact with real data using virtual and augmented reality (AVR) platforms. This allows teachers to develop lesson plans that can increase connectivity to plant, food, and agricultural sciences. It will also enable them to create more experiential learning opportunities for their students. AVR equipment is available to educators on a loan rotation system.

Contact Sandra Arango-Caro to get started with Educational Technology Professional Development.

Education Access

Using plant science education to reduce trauma in displaced students.

Natural disasters and geopolitical conflicts create barriers for students to access formal education. As a vulnerable subset of the population, displaced students are particularly at risk for mental health issues due to trauma, violence, and human trafficking. Through DiScuSs, we want to engage displaced and refugee students in STEM education to provide them with an outlet for coping with trauma and stress.

Students will engage in citizen science style projects collecting data for everything from mosquito species (by taking pictures of adult mosquitos) to health symptoms (to help healthcare professionals target aid).

By monitoring anxiety and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder levels, our Education Research Lab can determine if the protective nature of “thinking activities” for displaced students is through engagement in learning new content alone, or if it is additionally impactful when students are engaged in the practice of science. By determining the best way to educate students experiencing trauma, we can use better evidence-based teaching practices for students with PTSD.

Education Tools

Creating resources to combat plant blindness.

Plant Blindness Inventory
Plant blindness is the inability to notice plants in your own environment, and the inability to recognize the importance of plants in our daily lives. Our Education Research Lab is collaborating with the University of Memphis to validate a tool that will help assess plant blindness with students from 8-12th grade. The goal is to use the data collected through the inventory to improve STEM education content that can address knowledge gaps.

Education Research Lab Newsletter