Science With Practice creates professional research opportunities for students


Courtesy photo: Barb McBreen

Students participating in Science With Practice.

Tessa Callender

Observing beaver activity along Bear Creek. Determining the five most prevalent mosquito species in Iowa. Creating an insect zoo care sheet. Researching soil properties for Iowa grape production. Engaging the Iowa Beef Center in social media. Developing youth development programs about horticulture and assisting the Iowa 4-H Camera Corps. Working for the Iowa Pork Industry Center.

These seven activities are just a handful of the projects the 22 undergraduate students took on in the Science With Practice program in fall semester.

“The program allows students to get practical, real-world experience — it helps them connect their course work to research and to potential careers,” said director Michael Retallick, who has worked with the program since its beginning in the spring 2005. “For many students, it is an opportunity to explore research as a career path and to help them determine if graduate school is right for them.”

Science With Practice, funded by the ISU Agricultural Endowment Board and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, was created when these two integral organizations started “looking for creative ways to engage students with faculty on campus and innovative ways to help students fund their education,” Retallick said.

This academic, experiential learning and work program students can partake in for as long as they wish focuses on hands-on experiences and at the same time allowing the students to work closely with faculty and staff on specific projects and/or work assignments, while earning both money and academic credit in the process in an area of interest.

“It not only helps students develop the technical skills in their field, but also the professional skills,” Retallick said.

Each student receives two credits for the course, goes to a two-hour long class every other week focused on professional development and discusses topics ranging from networking to social media to grants.

In addition, participants must complete assignments, create a learning contract that sets goals for the student and mentor that keep them on track toward what they want to accomplish, a journal log of their working experiences due once a month, as well as a portfolio and final reflection report.

Each student must conduct up to 15 hours of experiential work a week. Whatever wage the participants make through the program, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and ISU Agricultural Endowment Board matches that amount, up to $5.

Students develop and participate in a poster presentation where they display and exhibit the outcomes from their project and all of hard work they did during the semester. The poster presentation was held at Kildee Hall, where various professors, faculty and students came to learn about the participants’ projects.

“My favorite part about the Science With Practice program was being able to wrap it all up with a poster,” said Shannon Mitchell, senior in agricultural and life sciences education.

This was Mitchell’s first year, and her project consisting of analyzing the composition of soils and establishing a database of the data acquired from the tests ran in the soils labs she worked in. Mitchell felt like it was a good opportunity in which she gained recording and communication skills and has considered participating again with a different project in the future.

First-time participant, Tom Lawler, sophomore in agronomy, also took on a project in the agronomy field. Lawler’s project differed in that he focused on a residue removal study examining the decomposition rate of corn residue on an annual basis to see when peaks of decomposition occur and if different nitrogen rates aide in the breakdown of residue.

Lawler already had been a paid employee for the professor he worked for, but decided to take his work to another level with the program and started doing research and working more with analyzing the data collected as opposed to repetitive motions.

He worked with 108 test plots and examined three replicated factors including tillage practices, no-till verses chisel plow, to see if the microbes would act faster if the residue was integrated into the soil or left on the soil’s surface, as well as different nitrogen rates and different locations.Decomposition bags were placed in each plot a little more than a year ago, and residue bags were collected twice a month where they were then taken back to the lab to be washed, dried and weighed so the data could be examined.

In Lawler’s work, he found out that no-till plots began decomposing faster than chisel plots, but that the residue in the no-till plots warmed up faster. Eventually the chisel plots ended up with more residue decomposed than the no-till plots. He also concluded that the three nitrogen levels really didn’t have much of an effect since the results showed that those test plots treated with nitrogen ended up with almost the same amount of residue left on the soil surface.

“I felt that working with Science With Practice gave me a chance to see what kind of work graduate students do and how to design, run and collect data on an experiment,” Lawler said. “It has opened a door for me to look at graduate school with a new perspective and gave me the chance to learn about how agricultural research takes place.”

Some students have even been involved with the program for multiple semesters. Emily Zimmerman, senior in biology, has been involved in the program for three semesters, starting in the fall of her junior year.

“Science with Practice offers its students a number of beneficial opportunities, which contributed to my desire to continue with the program,” Zimmerman said. “I was able to gain hands-on experience in a field of my interest while developing professional skills and interacting with other students completing research in the College of Agriculture.”

This year she built off her project from a previous year, which focused on the use of biochar, a biomass-derived black carbon, in a corn system.

Zimmerman found out the previous semester that this biochar can be applied to agricultural fields to improve soil fertility and increase crop production, so she decided to explore what the effects of biochar would do as a deterrent to weed establishment. She hypothesized if the ability to reduce weed pests above ground mirrored the decline of below ground pathogens, the use of biochar in agricultural fields might be able to reduce the use of herbicides.

In her research, she saw a decrease in the pathogenic microbes in the soil, which led Zimmerman to think that this reduction of weed species establishment might raise the establishment of corn seedlings with not having as much competition above and below ground for limited resources. The results weren’t as conclusive as she hoped and she thought that more research needs to be completed to determine if biochar affects weed species.

“I believe that these experiments can have practical application in the field, and can change the ecology of the agricultural system to increase diversity,” Zimmerman said. “Science With Practice has helped me prepare for my future academically and professionally. As a student, I gained practical knowledge in a field of interest and found a passion for plants, and have decided to apply to graduate school to focus on agro-biodiversity.”

Zimmerman also feels that she will now be able to utilize the laboratory techniques and communication and networking skills she learned when she becomes a graduate student.

Even first-time participant, Sarah Tenley, junior in animal science, felt the opportunity was beneficial. Tenley had a project comparing the average daily gain in steers that were fed the typical corn and urea-based diet to those fed a new liquid feed-based diet.

“I feel that I have gained many valuable communication skills through this program, especially by explaining my research to other people I meet,” Tenley said. “It’s a great conversation starter and something that employers are very interested in.”

After initially wanting to get involved to gain a better understanding of what graduate school would be like, and having such a great experience this go-around, she now would love to participate in the program again, doing research with reproductive physiology in cattle and horses.

“I like visiting with their projects and seeing all the great, different projects there are on campus available to students,” said Jacob Hunter, senior in agricultural and life sciences education who serves as the undergraduate assistant of Science With Practice.

“It is always exciting to see how much the students develop over the semester; they start looking at having a job experience in a different way. They make meaning out of their experience, rather than just working doing the same thing over and over again.”

Whether it be developing an understanding of the linkages between research and practical real-world situations and problems, building upon your interests or career goals or gaining crucial skills, it’s hard not to see the many opportunities participants can gain from Science With Practice and similar programs.