Students explore bacteria’s benefits hands-on

Amy Olson

In the age of E. coli outbreaks and the proliferation of antibacterial soaps and disinfectants, it’s hard to imagine that some bacteria are good for people and animals.
But 51 junior and senior high school students from 12 states are learning just how important some bacteria are to human and animal survival through the YouthALIVE! Institute on Microbiology this week on the St. Paul campus. The University’s College of Biological Sciences and the Science Museum of Minnesota are hosting the six-day conference.
The students, most of whom are in grades 8 through 10, came to Minnesota on Tuesday with their advisers from 13 science museums across the country. They are staying at Bailey Hall during the conference. When they go home, the students will teach their peers and teachers what they learned through classes and workshops taught at the museums.
Kathy France, an adviser from the Utah Museum of Natural History, said the trip cost the students little since several groups sponsored the conference, including the American Society for Microbiology, the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Association of Science and Technology Centers’ YouthALIVE! program, which helps students from low-income families get involved in science.
The students are conducting experiments to learn how bacteria help cows digest grass and how microbes help make yogurt and cheese. They are also studying how humans need some microbes to survive and how disinfectants work.
Jane Phillips, a professor in the University’s College of Biological Sciences, showed students a model of a cow’s four-part stomach Wednesday afternoon before the students visited one of the University’s fistulated cows. Phillips explained to the young microbiologists that cows need a type of bacterium in their first stomach, called the rumen, to digest cellulose in the grass they eat.
The fistula, or opening in the holstein’s stomach, allows researchers to study how cows digest certain foods.
Kerra Nottage, a senior from Palmetto High School in Miami, put on a long, plastic glove before tentatively putting her hand inside the fistula.
“You could feel the stuff swishing around.” she said. “It was definitely an experience.”
Phillips explained the cow needs the bacteria to digest the cellulose, or fiber, in grass. By sticking their hands into the fistula, the students could feel how the digested grass was breaking down as it settled into different layers.
For Tenly Thompson, a ninth-grader from Salt Lake City, touching the cow itself was a strange experience.
“It was weird to stick my hand in there,” she said.
France, who is Thompson’s adviser, said the institute provides students hands-on experience in science. France said that experience might help students like Thompson decide what to study in college and ultimately influence career decisions.
Besides studying bovine digestion, the students cultured bacteria from their own skin, teeth and throats to study microbes that live in humans. They also visited the University’s waste management site to learn how microbes help break down plant matter and animal manure.
But the conference wasn’t all work and no play. The group also visited the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul on Wednesday and watched the movie “Everest,” playing at the museum’s Omni Theater.
Mary Ann Steiner, who recently graduated from St. Paul Central High School, said the program is one of many ways the Science Museum gets students of all ages involved in scientific work. Steiner, a student at the conference, helped organize the event as part of her job at the museum.
The conference is also part of the American Society for Microbiology’s Microbial Literacy Collaborative, which is partially funded by the National Science Foundation.