A project to help identify rot-resistant rice. A study of the carcinogenic effects of barbecued foods. The work of a busy biotechnology laboratory? Actually, it’s the stuff of recent research projects conducted by Kirk Brown’s students at Tracy Joint Union High School in California’s central San Joaquin Valley.
Brown pushes students to investigate questions that scientists are wrestling with in the real world as part of the experiment-heavy advanced biology courses he designed for Tracy’s International Baccalaureate program. In addition, he helps kids who choose biology subjects for their extended essays—4,000- word papers IB candidates must complete—by connecting them with labs where they can undertake research. “Given the opportunity, students can do amazing things,” he says.
But his students do amazing things in part because of their teacher’s approach. Brown is famous for not giving them all the instructions when he assigns them experiments, according to former student Mykel Kochenderfer. The goal: Kids will learn to depend on their own creativity to guide their research, like real scientists. And Brown makes a special effort to share the latest research techniques with his classes, introducing students to truly useful tools, not just outdated textbook recipes.
For his IB project, Kochenderfer chopped up strands of rice DNA collected by University of California scientists to look for a gene that makes the grain resistant to a fungus that causes stem rot. Using a brand-new staining technique Brown had taught him, Kochenderfer found the gene within an impressive six weeks. While not all students make breakthrough discoveries, Brown says, “They all learn what it takes to conduct research in the real world and the thought process involved.”
Kochenderfer confirms that he certainly did. “The combination of conducting research at the UC-Davis lab and the intense year of advanced biology with Mr. Brown exposed me to what research is really about, especially in molecular genetics. It allowed me to encounter frustration. Before, I just knew about successful research—stuff you read about in biology textbooks, where it’s described in such a simple manner.”
Brown may infect others with enthusiasm for biology now, but when he attended high school in the ‘70s, he was an unmotivated student who was bored by his science teachers’ lectures. “In general, you just went through the book and memorized facts,” he recalls disdainfully. His dislike for rote learning, Brown says, inspired his current mission—finding ways for students to experience “the reasons research is so cool.”