Two researchers from the Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) at Texas A&M University have been honored by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its chief scientific agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), for exemplary achievement in collaborative student outreach and education.

The CMSE's Dr. Timothy P. Scott and Dr. Craig Wilson are recipients of the 2008 Administrator's Outreach, Diversity and Equal Opportunity Award for supervisory/managerial personnel, presented here Tuesday (Feb. 12) by ARS Administrator Edward B. Knipling as part of the ARS Annual Recognition Program.

The two were honored along with 14 ARS scientists from laboratories across Texas and Arkansas for their work with the Future Scientists-Student Outreach Initiative, a collaborative project co-sponsored by the CMSE and the ARS/Southern Plains Area (SPA) in College Station. The project is designed to encourage public school teachers, students and parents to become knowledgeable about agriculture, ARS science being conducted within their communities and potential employment opportunities.

"This award honors participants in the Future Scientists-Student Outreach Initiative project for their efforts to help nurture potential future scientists, as well as spread the word about current ARS research," Knipling said.

Scott serves as a CMSE director and an assistant professor of science education policy in the College of Science. Wilson is the co-principal investigator and director for the project and responsible for recruiting teachers and ARS personnel, setting up on-site training and conducting all follow-up with participating schools.

"The Center for Mathematics and Science Education at Texas A&M University is deeply honored and humbled by this award and recognition," Scott said. "Science outreach, diversity and recruitment to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) majors are areas of emphasis in which we strongly believe. Having the Future Scientists Program recognized is especially gratifying.

"We are even more grateful for the fact that the USDA has begun discussions with the CMSE to use the Future Scientists Program as a national model for their agency. We are excited about these possibilities and the promises they hold."

Since 2003, Wilson and local ARS scientists have helped thousands of promising elementary and middle school students across Texas and the Southwest gain first-hand insight into scientific research and possible future careers, courtesy of a common agricultural pest, the corn earworm. In the process of illustrating basic scientific concepts and the societal benefits of local agricultural research, they also hope to inspire the next generation of scientists.

"The challenge is to make learning relevant, and this initiative achieves that because it is based on cutting edge USDA/ARS research," explained Wilson. "Our goal is to encourage students to stay interested in science and also get excited about science."

Corn earworms, also known as tomato fruit worms or cotton bollworms, generally live, eat and breed inside corn husks during a relatively short life cycle lasting about one month. For precisely this reason, Wilson said, they make the perfect specimen for introduction into school science classrooms, where students and teachers can easily follow their complete progression from eggs to larvae to pupae to moths. In exchange for a small investment of time, students reap a lifetime of lessons, scientific and otherwise.

One indicator of the project's positive effects was a 6 percent rise in scores in the science section of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test -- up from 74 percent in 2006 to 80 percent in 2007 -- at one participating intermediate school. Science TAKS scores also went up 18 percent and 10 percent above the state average at participating elementary and high schools, respectively.

In the past year alone, ARS facilities have hosted and trained 30 public school teachers and administrators and more than 2,200 students in grades 4 through 10 about agriculture, ARS science, accomplishments and employment opportunities.

In a typical project cycle, participating teachers spend three weeks during two different stints paired with research scientists at ARS labs. Their focus is on developing "inquiry lessons" to actively engage students in various parts of the scientists' research programs. Between ARS stints, additional teacher training is provided during a two-week summer institute presented by the Texas A&M personnel and hosted by the ARS centers or laboratories at which the teachers learn and develop their own "mini-research units" for their students.

Later, during the school year, the teacher-researcher pairs work with students on selected inquiry lessons on topics ranging from hydroponics to rice gene crossing and insect research.

The Texas-based ARS scientists honored include plant geneticist Shannon Pinson, Rice Research Unit, Beaumont; entomologist Juan D. Lopez, Jr., biologist Gretchen Jones, biological science technicians Mike O'Neil, Christopher Parker and Ester Wilson, and research leader John Westbrook, Areawide Pest Management Research Unit, College Station; G. Wayne Ivie, director of the Southern Plains Agricultural Research Center, College Station; plant physiologist Michael Grusak, Children's Nutrition Research Center, Houston; and agricultural engineer Allen Miller, Knipling-Bushland U.S. Livestock Insects Research Laboratory, Kerrville.

The Arkansas-based ARS scientists were plant physiologist David Gealy and director Anna McClung, Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center, Stuttgart; and fish biologist Gerald Ludwig and director Don Freeman, Harry K. Dupree Stuttgart National Aquaculture Research Center.

ARS' Southern Plains Area includes Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

For more information about the Southern Plains Area Future Scientists Program, visit http://www.hsi.usda.gov/CornEarWorm/.


Contact: Shana K. Hutchins, (979) 862-1237 or shutchins@science.tamu.edu or Dr. Timothy P. Scott, (979) 845-7362 or tim@science.tamu.edu

Hutchins Shana

  • Insects and Inspiration

    Dr. Craig Wilson, director of the Future Scientists-Student Outreach Initiative project recognized by the USDA, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas.

  • Careers in Curiosity

    Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers.

  • Eye on Earworms

    A student presents his team's corn earworm findings on-site at the Southern Plains Agricultural Research Service laboratory in College Station.

  • Knowledgeable Pursuits

    Another student team analyzes an ear of corn and its inhabitants.

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