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WIU Science Program Offers Research Opportunities to Regional High School Teachers and Students

March 13, 2018

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MACOMB, IL -- An opportunity for a local high school teacher to expand his science-based knowledge has blossomed into new opportunities for his students to find a home in the laboratories of Western Illinois University.

The outreach experience comes thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant program, Research Experience for Teachers, applied for by WIU Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Andrea Porras-Alfaro and WIU doctoral student Terri Billingsley Tobias.

Southeastern High School science teacher Christopher Foster took part in the summer experience, "Plant-Fungal Symbiosis from the Laboratory to the Classroom," in 2017, as well as in Western's Research Inspiring Student Excellence (RISE) program. The research experience allowed Foster to participate in a microbial ecology project to examine the effect of nitrogen, phosphorus and other agricultural effects on root-associated fungi in a native species grass.

Foster, who is actively involved in student science mentoring, showed interest in participating in this grant opportunity. As part of his work at WIU, Foster began bringing three of his high school students to work in the University's laboratories - Jadyn Henry, Kylie Orris and Natalie Nanninga. In the fall, a fourth student, Jayleigh Peuster, also asked to join the lab. That relationship has now grown into new research opportunities for the high school students, now funded with a second NSF grant that has given them advanced education in laboratory and research techniques.

"The experience that WIU has granted to my students over the last year is invaluable," said Foster. "Being a small, rural, low-income high school, we do not have the budget for some of the scientific equipment necessary to gather data for projects that some of my top level students are interested in. Thus, Dr. Porras-Alfaro and Terri Billingsley Tobias have graciously written grants that have assisted in securing funding for the advancement of our science club program."

With funding from the NSF grant, a new microscope and micropippetors were purchased for the high school. In addition, they were able to work as a team with the students to develop both molecular and plant-fungal microscopy laboratory activities for high school teaching purposes.

Foster said Porras Alfaro and Billingsley Tobias have shown his students scientific techniques that will benefit them as they progress through their higher education and into potential careers.  

"I have the utmost gratitude for both of these individuals," he said. "I hope to continue our great working relationship for many years to come."

After Foster returned to his high school classroom in Fall 2017, his students have continued their work at the University. Porras-Alfaro and Billingsley Tobias received additional NSF funding through the Research Assistantships for High School Students (RAHSS) Program to provide the students with additional opportunities to continue with their research and to present their findings at regional science fairs. The grant provides a small salary for each student and travel money to visit collaborating institutions. They are hoping to take the students to the Sevilleta Long-Term Research Field Station this summer in New Mexico.

"The funding supports their work here and allows them to be a part of our summer research team," said Porras-Alfaro. "It also allows them to spend part of their senior year in a college environment. They are members of the lab and they feel invested in the process."

Peuster is currently conducting research on fungi in grasses and its input on commercial agricultural crops. Orris and Henry are conducting research on the effect of yeast on mosquito development. The projects translate into required work for their high school science projects and classes.

Peuster and Orris are juniors at Southeastern High School and Henry is a freshman. All three women said they wouldn't have been able to complete their chosen research projects without working in the WIU laboratories.

"These experiences have helped me get an insight to another field of science that I may have never been exposed to without this opportunity," said Peuster.

Orris said she has enjoyed the chance to interact with WIU graduate and undergraduate science students and talk about their research and their college experience.

"Analyzing data and talking about further projects with Dr. Porras-Alfaro and Terri really stimulates my passion for science," she said. "I learned so many new protocols and lab techniques that will benefit me to know going into college. I am very grateful to have had the chance to jumpstart my college career."

For Henry, working at WIU has presented her with the tools to conduct new experiments and work with new materials and equipment.

"Without Western Illinois University, I would have never had many of the great experiences that I have had this past year," she said.

Tobias said the trio will compete in regional science fairs in the coming months, including the state science fair at Bradley University. The students also take advantage of breaks from school to spend as much time as possible in the campus labs.

"If school is closed, or any time classes are cancelled, the students are on campus," said Billingsley Tobias. "It's important to start early and continue to build on their interest in sciences. They learn what is expected in college and they become comfortable in a college setting."

The students recently received the first rewards for their efforts at the Culver Stockton Science Fair, where Henry and Orris won a first place and a first overall in zoology and Peuster won a first place and third overall in botany. They also participated in Heartland Tech Academy Invitational AgriScience Fair in Decatur, IL, where Peuster, Henry and Orris won first place and Henry and Orris won the award for best overall.

For more information about the RISE program, visit

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