Northern Idaho High School Science Teachers Keep Skills Fresh in University Research Labs

Tuesday, November 24 2009

Research has Direct Application to the Region's Water Quality

Written by Donna Emert

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho – Scientific research is only a little bit like riding a bike: you don't ever forget how, but there are always new approaches, technologies and discoveries to factor into the process.

To keep their skills and knowledge up to date, four high school science teachers from Coeur d'Alene are back in the lab, pursuing research with direct application to the region's water quality – and best approaches to monitoring it – through a University of Idaho Coeur d'Alene professional development program.

Teachers Mike Criswell, Pam Gomes and Kevin Haler from Lake City, and Neil Morris from Coeur d'Alene High School are conducting research in microbial ecology, water-quality monitoring, and applied nanotechnology and biosensor development in the university's Harbor Center laboratory overlooking the Spokane River.

Criswell and Morris are doing microbial source tracking, which may not be as glamorous as it sounds.

"We started small, with streaking of scat samples to build our library of known E. coli sources," said Charlene Gibson, molecular biologist and University of Idaho laboratory manager working with Criswell and Morris. "Neil and Mike now are starting to do some repetitive element PCR [polymerase chain reaction] analysis of water samples and known E. coli samples."

Rep-PCR creates a DNA fingerprint specific to an organism. By comparing unknown E. coli collected from local streams with known E. coli identified from scat samples, the researchers can determine the source of contamination.

While teachers often conduct laboratory experiments in the classroom, those outcomes always are known in advance – a goal to be achieved by students, with the degree of their success to be measured by teachers.

Real scientific research is different, these teachers point out. It includes many hours of trial and error, and hard-won moments of discovery.

"Personally, it feels good to be back in the lab and get some ‘real' science under my belt again," said Criswell. "It seems like I'm kicking the dust off my brain. This project has been a great refresher of techniques and equipment that I have forgotten about since pursuing my degree."

The full-time teachers each spend about three hours a week in the lab and are required to complete a poster summarizing their research.

They bring fresh skills, the joy of discovery and a renewed respect for the tenacity necessary to pursue scientific study back to their classrooms.

"I've already talked to my classes about the procedures that I have been working on in the lab," said Criswell. "We read a lot of science articles, and I explained to them that the articles are a culmination of years of research, and that there are thousands of hours behind the scenes that go into a scientific venture."

The regional focus of the research also makes science more immediate for their students, the teachers note.

"I will bring the skills and knowledge gained from this project into my classroom to further the skill and knowledge of my students," said Morris. "I will be able to relate the things I teach about to a real-life research project happening in their community, and I will be prepared to provide a richer laboratory experience as well."

Gomes is working with University of Idaho associate professor of environmental science David Newcombe, monitoring the water quality of Hayden Lake. Newcombe hopes to expand Hayden Lake monitoring to include secondary science teachers and students as well.

Haler is working with University of Idaho food scientist and Vice President for Northern Idaho Larry Branen and University of Idaho organic and nanomaterial chemist Shiva Rastogi to study nanoparticles and nanowires for use in developing optical and electronic biosensors. They hope ultimately to develop nano-based biosensors that can rapidly detect and identify microorganisms and toxins. Biosensors have broad application in water and food quality monitoring and in biomedicine.

For more information or to apply for a Science Teacher Professional Development course, go to or call (208) 667-2588.
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state's flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation classification for high research activity. The university's student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 130 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

Photo Opportunity: Wednesday, Dec. 2, from 3:30-6:30 p.m., local high school science teachers will conduct research in the University of Idaho Coeur d'Alene Laboratory at the Harbor Center, 1031 North Academic Way, Suite 242, Coeur d'Alene.

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit