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Bringing the Scientist to the Student

Posted by Jan Suszkiw, Agricultural Research Service in Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

When the Terrebonne Parish Main Library in Houma, Louisiana, issued flyers asking local science and engineering professionals to spend a few hours mentoring students on their science-fair project ideas, Michael Grisham didn’t hesitate.

Indeed, you might say that Grisham has had a lifelong affinity for science fairs—first as a student and, today, as a plant pathologist with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), where he leads the agency’s Sugarcane Research Unit (SRU) in Houma.

“I began participating in science fairs in the 7th grade and continued throughout high school. It was through doing science fair projects that my lifelong interest in science was born,” says Grisham. In addition to supervising a team of scientists in researching solutions to production, pest and disease problems faced by the U.S. sugarcane industry, “I have been a science fair judge for more than 25 years,” he adds.

Grisham’s expertise in helping develop new varieties with genetic resistance to costly sugarcane diseases like mosaic made him an ideal choice for “Biology, Environment, and Agriculture”—one of four categories comprising the library’s “Science Rocks!” event that is held in the fall.

Grisham was one of 14 science, engineering and health professionals who met with students and their parents or guardians to offer advice on science projects. For their part, the 35 middle- and high-school-aged students were asked to bring one-page summaries of their science-fair project ideas so that they and their mentors could review the ideas and chart a focused path forward in conducting scientifically-sound experiments.

“For the students planning biological science projects, we emphasized that they begin by asking a question and then developing an experiment to answer that question,” says Grisham. “Once they had a question, we helped them develop a hypothesis. Then we attempted to show them how scientists use the scientific method to answer questions.”

He hopes the students who participated found the interaction as worthwhile as he did. Grisham’s enthusiasm for outreach also extends to his own laboratory, where he and his staff host classroom and summer camp visits to encourage student interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The entire staff at SRU does an excellent job of supporting outreach activities for students,” says Grisham. “We enjoy the interaction and welcome the opportunity to help them see that they can be participants in scientific discovery.”

Grisham and his staff say they are excited about sparking scientific interest and sharing their passion with students this summer!

Category/Topic: Research and Science

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