Brevard high school students’ research wins accolades

Brevard High School sophomores Abby Williams and Carly Onnink had just finished their entomology presentation at the 2013 State 4-H Congress, when N.C. State University entomologist and presentation judge Dr. Jack Bacheler turned to them and asked, “Where are you from?”

That’s because Abby and Carly are among a group of science students in this small mountain town involved in the type of scientific research you might expect to find in a university laboratory. The T.I.M.E. for Real Science program (Time to Inquire, Matter and Explore) is a partnership between Transylvania County 4-H and the county schools.

The girls’ research involves testing different scents to find out which are most attractive to kudzu bugs, an invasive insect species that attacks soybeans, an important commodity crop in North Carolina. The insects also annoy homeowners when they cluster on light-colored siding.

Bacheler was impressed at the quality of the girls’ work on kudzu bug pheromones. He shared their research with his N.C. State colleague Dr. Coby Schal, who said the students’ work was equal to that of entomology graduate students. “These students were obviously very well mentored, but also brilliant in the way they posed the hypotheses, synthesized the literature and analyzed the results,” Schal told Bacheler.

T.I.M.E. for Real Science started in 2007 out of a vision that two N.C. State University alumni had for replacing typical high school “cookbook” science labs with real scientific inquiry into their own questions.

Teacher Jennifer Williams and 4-H agent Mary Arnaudin worked together to develop T.I.M.E.
Teacher Jennifer Williams and 4-H agent Mary Arnaudin worked together to develop T.I.M.E.

Mary Arnaudin, Transylvania County 4-H agent with a background in hands-on science, worked with Brevard High School teacher Jennifer Williams, who is also Abby’s mom, to submit a grant proposal to the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The proposal was to develop a summer and afterschool program that would introduce students to local environmental issues that could be addressed through science and engineering.

When they received a $180,000 BWF grant, Arnaudin and Jennifer Williams allowed students to apply for a spot in the program that enabled them to acquire the equipment needed to conduct original research and present it at community symposiums, as well as at state and even international conferences.

N.C. State University’s Science House faculty helped lead the summer orientation week and the N.C. Agricultural Foundation served as the fiscal agent. T.I.M.E. is now a school day course with summer and after school components, facilitated by Brevard High School teachers Williams and Laura Patch.

T.I.M.E. is designed so students can develop a hypothesis and research project around an issue in which they are interested. Abby and Carly read about kudzu bugs in local newspapers and noticed them in their community. The girls were surprised to find that little was known about kudzu bug control and wondered what they could uncover themselves.

“No one has any idea what the bug’s pheromone is, so we decided to start trying to figure that out,” Abby said.

To explore the kudzu bug pheromone, the students have exposed their bugs to different scents, using an olfactometer that they adapted. The olfactometer uses a Y-shaped rod that allows the insects to climb upward from the bottom to the scent they prefer.

If the insects show significant attraction to certain scents, those scents may contain chemicals within the insects’ pheromones, chemicals the insects use to communicate. Pheromones can be used to devise traps or other insect control methods.

“They put those chemicals in the trap to sort of trick the bug. The bugs think, ‘Oh, my buddy is telling me to be with him,’ when they’re really just being trapped. It’s not the only way to control them, but it’s part of the solution,” Carly said.

Anyone who has ever brushed a small kudzu bug off a white shirt will recognize the “aggravated scent” that the bugs leave behind. Abby and Carly discovered last year that female kudzu bugs are attracted to the “aggravated scent.” Both males and females were attracted to pheromones from another insect, the brown marmorated stinkbug.

Throughout their research, Abby and Carly have gained much experience and knowledge on their specimen, such as where to collect them locally, how to raise them in the lab and how to distinguish males from females. Much of their research last year was devoted to developing an olfactometer best suited to studying their insect.

Their results earned them third place at the State Science Fair and a first place in the N.C. Student Academy of Science competition last year. They will present their work at the national American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February, an award for their first place win.

Both Abby and Carly say that the T.I.M.E. program has piqued their interest in science as a career. This year, the two girls plan to continue using their olfactometer, but to test attraction to specific chemicals rather than scents. In addition, they plan to analyze the kudzu bug’s aggravated scent through gas chromatography to determine its chemical components.

The ultimate, future goal would be field testing identified chemicals in a pheromone trap in order to show how results found in the lab transfer to the natural world.

4-H Agent Arnaudin says that since T.I.M.E. began, student projects have shifted from mostly field work to more lab work. Before students begin a research project, they have to fill out a feasibility survey, outlining the cost of the project, risk involved, time required and more, says teacher Williams.

Arnaudin’s role has been to help connect the science students with scientists who can help support their work, including some from the Mountain Horticulture Crops Research and Extension Center in Mills River.

Like all research programs, T.I.M.E. is looking for its next funding source, after a state grant was eliminated in last year’s budget process. Recently Abby and a fellow student appealed to a group of state entrepreneurs and came away with $2,000. Another student raised $1,000.

Williams says that the class has made an impact, with 67 percent of its graduates now enrolled in science majors as college students. Past students still get in touch with her to say, “That T.I.M.E. class really came in handy again” with college science studies.

— Natalie Hampton

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