CISD Education Foundation Grants: ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’

Written by Kay Hubbard.

Science Field Trips: Expanding Horizons, Spotlighting Never-Imagined Career Paths

Editor’s note: This article is the third in a series about some CISD Education Foundation grants from which local students, teachers, and campuses receive such great benefit. It is amazing to see what can be done with these resources donated by generous people in our community when placed in the hands of teachers who think and dream big!

 Three CISD Education Foundation grants have provided incredible, eye-opening experiences that shed light on hundreds of possible careers in science for Carthage High School students.

Biology teacher Schelice Reyes wrote a grant for a group of science students to visit the Galveston National Laboratory (GNL) and also for activities through the Educational Outreach/Texas A&M University at Galveston. CHS Biology teacher Chuck Waggoner, math teacher Phillip Parker, and Business/Career & Technology teacher Karen McAllister were other faculty members on the trip.

GNL is a high-security National Biocontainment Laboratory, run by the University of Texas Medical Branch, that houses several Biosafety level 4 research laboratories for exotic disease diagnosis and research.It is one of only two such facilities in the United States and the largest one in the world located on an academic campus. The eight-story, 80,000-square-foot was built using construction standards designed to resist a Category 5 hurricane and features innumerable protective measures in construction, air ventilation systems, and other extreme safety-related areas.

Its mission and vision statements contain language that includes “improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of naturally emerging or purposefully disseminated infectious diseases” and “discover, develop, and evaluate novel diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines to advance global health and defend against emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism threats.” Highly trained researchers work closely with the Centers for Disease Control to study every conceivable type of pathogen and disease. Diseases like West Nile and Chikungunya viruses caused by the bite of infected mosquitoes, Lyme Disease caused by the bite of infected ticks, and the very deadly Ebola virus are just a few of the more common of those under study at the lab.

The CHS students were treated to a verbal/visual presentation about the lab and a tour of some of the facilities. The labs themselves are of such a high risk nature that visitors cannot go into them, but lab representatives described them and allowed students to “suit up” in the protective gear that workers in the labs must wear.

One of the most interesting topics was about research going on outside of the lab’s pathogen studies, focused on the regrowth of organs. Traditional organ transplants require extensive tissue matching and usually very long waits for people awaiting transplant, and many anti-rejection drugs following surgery. A team of immunologists at UTMB and the lab recently created a “lab-grown” lung that has been tested with increasingly positive results in pigs. It involves removing the lung to be transplanted, completely cleansing it of all cells of the donor, thereby forming a support scaffold that meets the structural needs of a lung. It is then re-seeded with the recipient’s own cells, so that there is not the same need for a perfect match or continuing anti-rejection remedies. Hopefully in the future, a procedure like this will be available for humans to use their own cells to better make the new organ their own, thereby reducing both rejection and the number of people who die waiting for donors.

After the lab visit, students met at a marsh near the Gulf with representatives from the Educational Outreach/Texas A&M University at Galveston. The marsh is teeming with marine plant and animal specimens. Students were able embark on an adventure of exploration and education. They were able to seine (dredge with nets) the bay and had a hands-on opportunity to handle various sea life off the coast of Texas.

Schelice is grateful to the Education Foundation for the incredible opportunity these real-world experiences that go so far beyond the regular curriculum give her students. She says, “It is amazing to watch the looks on their faces as they see the huge number of medical career opportunities they might never have been aware of, even in this one building, how interesting and important those careers are, and that they absolutely could pursue one of them. I love that our Education Foundation continues to fund these kinds of outside-the-classroom activities, in addition to the many important things they fund for use inside the classroom. We are so blessed to have this in our community!”

Anatomy and Physiology teacher Nola Manis wrote a grant and took students to visit the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas through the school’s STARS program. Other faculty members on the trip were chemistry teacher Tracy Kennedy and physics teacher Blaine Vassar. The acronym STARS stands for Science Teacher Access to Resources at Southwestern and was developed in the 1990s to improve the quality of science education by making Southwestern’s vast educational resources available to middle and high school science teachers. The program is designed to broaden the knowledge base of the teachers and provide instructional aids and ongoing support for both teachers and students, and also to stimulate an awareness and appreciation for health-related careers.

CHS students joined college and medical students to tour the facilities and talk to doctors, professors, heads of departments, researchers, and other medical personnel involved in all the different fields of medicine. One high-interest area was the willed bodies laboratory where medical students learn human anatomy by dissecting the bodies of people who have donated their bodies to science. While privacy laws prohibit outsiders from observing the actual willed bodies, the students did get to observe preserved organ specimens displayed together in their true locations in the body.

In the Microorganism Department, they met a researcher who had actually created a virus to track a cancer-causing agent and see why it only affected a certain part of the digestive system. They were able to visit with another researcher who is working on cell structure and how being in outer space affects it, as well as working on cell modification, repair, and regeneration.

Another very interesting activity involved the daVinci computer-operated robot that performs surgical procedures. The students were able to use the robot to dissect and suture (not on real patients, of course!), and Nola says the teachers were amazed at how good they were with it. She was also very pleased at how complimentary all the staff was about the students. “They all kept saying, ‘You have the best kids! They pay attention and ask good questions and are so well-behaved. We are always glad when we hear Carthage is coming!”

Nola laughs that the kids kept saying in amazement, “This is really like science fiction!” She adds, “But they really were in awe of how huge the field of medical careers is and that they could have a place in it. We appreciate the Education Foundation so much for providing these kinds of opportunities. We are so blessed by the Foundation and are so impressed with how eager they are to be on the cutting edge of everything. They are always evolving, never satisfied with the status quo, always asking how they can make things better, asking what the newest things are. They are constantly ready to help our kids, not just this year or next year, but far into the future. And it’s so exciting for us when we get our grants! We are like little kids at Christmas!”

Chemistry teacher Tracy Kennedy wrote a grant for students to visit NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. Physics teacher Blaine Vassar was another faculty member on the trip. Originally aimed at advanced STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) students who were obvious candidates for possible careers at NASA, many of those students were unable to go due to calendar and end-of-course testing conflicts, and the trip was opened to a wider variety of students. The trip included several students who wanted to go into communications, an artist, and students interested in several other fields of study. It turns out that the “NASA profile” is HUGE, and every one of the students could be a potential NASA employee.

The “Behind the Scenes” tour of the facility, which employees about 15,000 people, included research areas, assembly areas where engineers and scientists were doing their everyday work, the robotics engineering area where people build and rehearse the rovers that go to Mars, the on-site Saturn rockets that are on loan from the Smithsonian, and both the original and current flight operations center. Day to day and minute to minute, this center never stops. There are people on duty in there continuously any time there is any American in space or any American interests going on in space. They also saw the huge underwater neutral buoyancy training lab, a three-story underground pool that contains an underwater replication of the space station.

The tour guides explained the science of why the pool is a valuable training tool, and students saw that even a professional diver can become part of NASA! Tracy says that their tour guides had been with NASA since the 1960s, who shared their tremendous knowledge about the history of NASA and astronauts and politicians and had very personal stories to tell. The group had lunch in the employee cafeteria with former flight director Gordon Andrews, who discussed the future of NASA and space travel and the hundreds of different occupations at the facility.

Tracy says, “I want students to see what’s outside Carthage and outside their own experiences. Many of them do not know how to pursue a career option outside of what they have grown up with. I want them to have that exposure, and the Education Foundation is doing a great service by providing opportunities for it. Many of our students have never been to Houston, and certainly not to the Johnson Space Center, and trips like this allow them to begin to broaden their horizons and begin to see a bigger world!”