Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Today, his words exemplify the power of “seed money” that helped grow a program that harnessed the brilliance, ingenuity, dedication and humor of 26 students at Menchville High School and their teacher, Ashley Chassard.
This “seed money” was a $500 mini-grant presented by the Newport News Education Foundation and the National Council of Jewish Women. Together, these two organizations sponsor a Mini-Grant Program based on the belief that many successful programs begin in the classroom. These grants are available to Newport News Public Schools (NNPS) teachers and they support the NNPS mission of ensuring that students graduate “college, career and citizen-ready.”
Chassard teaches Advanced Placement, (AP), biology, molecular cell/research, genetics and forensic science. She applied for and received the mini-grant in 2017 for her proposal, “The Effect of Estradiol on Parkinson’s Induced Zebrafish Embryos.
The idea for this proposal was based on a need identified by her former students. Says Chassard, “I’d have students returning who would say, ‘The AP courses were great but we didn’t get much lab experience;’ they felt that the practical-type research-based lab experiences were missing.” She further explains, “It became clear that they needed experiences where they are designing, they are executing their experiments, they are failing then working that process of going back and re-working it to see what went wrong.”
With NNPS’ approval, the mini-grant and an additional grant from the Toshiba Foundation, Chassard and “26 of the best and brightest minds” formed her inaugural class. The class reaches beyond the typical “cookie-cutter” labs, where everyone knows what is going to happen and the outcome is known before the experiment starts. The class is conducted over two semesters. The first is molecular and cellular biology and the second is research and applications in cellular processes.
The funds from the mini-grant contributed to a cell-culturing lab that helped set up what the class is doing with the Zebrafish. Fertilized fish eggs come from Carolina Biological in North Carolina and are shipped overnight, first to Memphis and then to Norfolk where FedEx delivers them to the school.
Explains Chassard, “From seven bags, we hope to get 40 to 50 good eggs. Timing is everything because at 24 hours post fertilization, we sort them and remove the dead ones and any parasites; at 48 hours we provide necessary treatments and they hatch by 72 hours.” After a few days of growth, the fish are put in containers with rearing solution. By isolating the fish, under the microscope they can see certain movements that the fish make that are more indicative of Parkinson’s-like movements. “We hope to see that with dopamine neuron degeneration if estrogen will protect the dopamine neuron when exposed,” says Chassard.
“I teach content through lab experiences and experiments, and it’s not just the lab skills; it’s the writing skills and being able to write those scientific papers in the proper format. That’s really the essence of what this is—I’m making sure they are college-ready, and I do that through science which is super fun!” And, her students agree.
“Instead of us just replicating other people’s experiments, we are making our own, and from that we can take our research paper to colleges and have something on our resume that shows that we did something pretty cool with this experiment,” Zachary Ruhlen says with a smile. “This class encourages us to take risks like reaching for that one college you weren’t sure you’d get in because now you’re no longer worried about failure.”
Sophia Ramirez says, “This class will give me a leg up because it will allow me to use the tools that I’ll be using throughout college, and I’m learning through mistakes now so that I’m not making them later—this experience has been invaluable.”
“These students are invested,” says Chassard. “There are problems that need to be solved and they are identifying those problems and tossing out solutions. This isn’t my experiment; it is our experiment.”
The “our” also includes a supportive administration, faculty and staff. “When I look at Menchville, it’s a team effort,” Chassard says. “A number of us collaborate because we are not just little islands. We share the same students so it’s our job to inspire them. We come from different directions and connect with them in different ways to encourage them to pursue their strengths and improve any weaknesses.”
This team of educators and community partners feel they have made a wise investment in these students, this instructor, this course and its projects. As 23 of these 26 students are “college-ready” seniors graduating in June, the dividends of the “seed money” have the potential to reap benefits for generations to come.