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Ambitious bio-science club makes leap to become a full class at Olathe East High School

Special to The Star

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To learn more about the Olathe East Advanced Biotechnology Research Group, visit https://teachers.olatheschools.com/omiirlab or follow @OEBioTech on Twitter.

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They diligently conduct scientific research in the morning. They perform intricate experiments in the late afternoon. They even work through their lunch break.

They’re not biologists in lab coats. They’re not graduate students at a prestigious university.

They’re high school kids.

The Olathe East students in the Advanced Biotechnology Research Group take their club seriously, and now the Olathe School District does, too.

After two years of being an extracurricular activity, the biotechnology club will become a class at Olathe East in the fall.

The club, which has about 20 members, is researching the culture and regrowth of methanotrophic bacteria, using a wide variety of experiments and individual projects. The students meet every Thursday with their advisor, Michael Ralph, and they also work during their own time.

“It’s exciting to see youth so dedicated to science,” said Ralph, an AP biology teacher. “They’re doing research projects that most college students don’t get their hands on until graduate school.”

He started the club in 2012 as a way to encourage his students to take science seriously, and he wants the scientific community to take dedicated high school students seriously, as well.

One of Ralph’s goals for the club, and the upcoming class, is for his students to compose scientific documents about their research for academic journals. Plus, he wants to prepare them for the science world.

“We’re learning to write lab reports in a professional manner, conduct our own experiments and be creative problem solvers,” said Anastasia Weston, a senior in the club. “I’m definitely not going to be intimidated next year when I have to take a chemistry lab in college.”

For the past year, Weston has been working on her own plant genetics research project for the club.

Last summer, she spent most of her days holed up in a science lab at the University of Kansas working on plant genes and interacting with grad students. She plans on doing the same this summer before she heads to Kansas State University in the fall.

“At first, I was intimidated working at KU because I was just a little high school student among some really impressive people earning their PhDs,” she said. “But I quickly learned that there are a million people there who are willing to help and answer any questions I had. They treated me with respect.”

Weston, and her fellow club members, are treated with that same respect within the walls of their high school.

They’ve received a serious peer review from an Iowa State University science professor via Skype and they have received tips about grant writing from a professional science administrator. They even have a mentor from the University of Kansas, a PhD student who stops by every Thursday morning to teach the business side of science, such as the importance of social media and networking.

Last year, the Olathe Public Schools Foundation gave the biotechnology club a $1,000 grant, which was used to build a lab computer. Donations were raised to help buy the club a 3D printer. Some local businesses have also donated services and materials for experiments.

The club even has its own marketing department in the form of 17-year-old Jeremy Johnson.

He joined the research group in January when he heard the students needed a videographer to document their projects. Over the past few months, he has created a short documentary of the club, an informational video for the club’s website, and a Twitter feed. He also helps recruit new members.

He couldn’t be more proud of his new friends.

“These guys, in my opinion, are geniuses,” Johnson said. “Watching them work is incredible because they’re doing things not a lot of people can do, and you can tell they’re really passionate. I have no doubt all of them are going to majorly impact the science community one day.”

Next year, when the club becomes a class, Ralph hopes to keep that passion alive.

“These students will be able to tackle bigger problems and work collaboratively,” said Ralph, who will teach the class. “There will be a curriculum, but I’m not going to let go of that hands-on nature of the club, because that’s its core. The assignments will be things like writing papers to communicate their work and conducting peer reviews.”

Although many members of the group, like Weston, will graduate in the spring, others are excited to earn school credit for something they started doing out of love.

“In high school, they sit you down and teach you what people have already done and then they quiz you about it,” said Reed Schimmel, a junior in the club. “Now, I’m doing work that no one else has done. I feel useful, like I’m actually applying my mind to something beneficial.”

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