K-State researchers create Adaptive Primary Literature (APL) for high school students

June 22, 2010

OLATHE, Kan. - For the average high school student, or even an above average high school student, reading a scientific article can be a daunting task. With plenty of vocabulary words, detailed mathematical models and complex tables, organization never looks as complicated as it does in a scientific article. K-State researchers are working on making such articles more accessible.

Teresa Woods, a PhD candidate in science education who is coordinating the partnership between the Olathe School District and K-State Olathe, describes primary scientific literature as written by scientists, for scientists, with such esoteric language that usually only specialists in those fields can fully understand the papers.

She is collaborating with Dr. Kristopher Silver, post doctoral fellow in clinical sciences, and Dr. Samantha Wisely, assistant professor of wildlife biology, to "translate" these papers, producing what they are calling Adaptive Primary Literature (APL).

"We are adapting the language to be high school-friendly, essentially, while still maintaining the essence of the questions, the data collection, the actual research that took place, the results and how the evidence supported or didn't support the hypotheses," Woods said.

This relates to K-State Olathe because the paper will be implemented in the freshman class Introduction to Lab Techniques in the Animal Health 21st Century Program at Olathe North High School.

The chosen paper is "An unidentified filarial species and its impact on fitness in wild populations of the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes)." At one time, there were only 15 of these black-footed ferrets remaining, so they were put in a captive breeding program. While the numbers have now increased to several hundred in the wild, the population is still closely monitored. Disease contributed to the near-extinction of the species, so scientists were very concerned when some of the ferrets began testing positive for heartworm.

As they conducted more specific tests, however, they realized that this worm wasn't a heartworm. Whatever it was, it didn't seem to be hurting the ferrets, though scientists will investigate further. According to Woods, this kind of surprise twist is characteristic of science and therefore an excellent example for students.

"One of the reasons we chose this paper is for its illustration of the transitory nature of conclusions. You may get one indication using one test, and when you try to replicate it and use other tests to confirm the results, they often don't, and that's not uncommon in science," Woods said.

Woods said the team looked for a paper that was fairly straightforward, that did not require too much modeling or abstract reasoning, one in which the evidence was fairly direct. The particular paper they are adapting is especially relevant because it demonstrates a technique the students will be using in class. Also, students who stick with the program will be able to implement some of the mentioned DNA techniques when they are in junior and senior-level classes.

"We just thought it showed a very cool aspect of science, kind of a 'CSI mystery.' Just when you think it's one thing, you have a little bit more information that tells you, 'No it's not,'" Woods said.

The process of adapting a paper is fairly involved. The researchers make an outline, and in doing so they edit out aspects which are not necessary for the high school students to know in order to understand the paper. The omitted portions are parts scientists needed to write for the validity of their paper being seen by other scientists, but which will be very confusing for the students. The team also identifies concepts that will need definition. On the Web format, these will be hyperlinked to a definition and examples. For this paper, they have designed an animated diagram that can help illustrate the processes of the evidence and how it accrued.

An example of what this will look like on a Web site can be seen here [hyperlink]. The project is titled, "West Nile virus: Mathematical Modeling to Understand and Control a Disease." The paper it is adapted from is "An epidemiological model for West Nile virus: invasion and control applications."

- By Ashley Dunkak -