Kayla Hankins
Year: 2015

Diversifying STEM Education in Secondary School Classrooms Through the Applied Research of Maize Natural Variation and Insect Herbivore Resistance

Project Summary

Maize (Zea mays) is one the world’s most widespread and diverse agronomic crops cultivated and harvested by farmers on a yearly basis. As a result, maize is of particular social and economic importance to millions of people worldwide. Thus, natural variation in Zea mays, is becoming an increasingly agronomically valuable resource to both farmers seeking to reduce crop yield loss in their fields, and plant scientists aiming to identify the genes responsible for a particular cultivar’s increased resistance against insect herbivore pests. Insect herbivore resistance in maize is characterized by a class of plant secondary defense metabolites called Benzoxazinoids, and more specifically, in the case of maize, a biochemical compound called DIMBOA-Glc which, through a process of methylation and decay ultimately forms the biochemical insect deterrent compound, MBOA. The biosynthesis of these defensive metabolites is triggered by the wounding of plant tissues resulting from herbivory caused by insect pests such as the Beet Armyworm (Spodoptera exigua). However, the biosynthesis of these defensive metabolites is highly variable amongst cultivated maize lines, so, how do scientists identify those maize varieties with increased herbivore resistance to a particular insect pest? And importantly, how can scientists develop meaningful partnerships with secondary school science educators to further enrich and enhance secondary school science education through hands-on, applied research opportunities adapted specifically for the classroom based upon the complex, biological concepts that accompany plant science research topics?

Addressing some of these questions was the overall goal of my project. Through the collaboration between both the faculty and staff here at BTI and educators throughout the nation, I worked to help improve upon classroom laboratory techniques for the “Beet Armyworm Invasion” curriculum development project as well as the development of educational outreach materials and programs relating to maize natural variation and plant-insect interactions.

My Experience

My learning experience with Education Outreach here at BTI has been both a wonderful and challenging experience. The breadth of the education that I have received here during the ten weeks that I have participated in this program is nothing short of incredible. I have been introduced to so many fantastic researchers, scientists, faculty, staff, fascinating research topics, and fields of study than I could have ever imagined before. The whole education outreach team here at BTI has gone out of their way to ensure that my experience was every bit as educational as it was encouraging and supportive, and now, not only do I feel more confident in my work in the lab, but I also feel more confident in my abilities to communicate complex scientific research topics to the general public in a way that is both fun and engaging. The entire institute welcomed me and my fellow interns with open arms, and so it has definitely been an invaluable and enlightening educational experience as a result.