Sci Ed

ATLANTA – A tiny worm can tell scientists much about genetics. And recently, the worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, helped teachers from Atlanta metro area schools learn ways to bring science, mathematics and English together to make a difference in the classroom.

Teacher Nicole Turner and associate professor of biology Casonya Johnson examine C. elegans under a microscope during a workshop for Atlanta-area science teachers.

Casonya Johnson, associate professor of biology, led a workshop funded by the National Science Foundation and supported by the GSU Bio-Bus, a university-sponsored science education program.

In her research, Johnson uses C. elegans, a transparent roundworm only a millimeter long that is giving her insight into genetics. In her workshop for 12 teachers, she presented C. elegans as a way to teach K-12 students about behavioral and genetic responses to the environment.

Through the teachers, the workshop is reaching to more than 1,000 students around the metro area.

“The idea behind the workshop is to take teachers from the 6th to 12th grades from counties all around Atlanta and to have them work on the same experiments that I do in the lab,” Johnson said. “From there, we can see how we can modify these experiments for classes of 35 students.

“At the same time, we want to adapt the lab to the classroom, but we also want it to be beyond a ‘canned lab,’” she continued.

Teachers used pancake syrup as a source of glucose, crushed tobacco as a source of nicotine, and purified caffeine to examine the worms’ responses to environmental stimuli. The process is known as a chemotaxis assay, and it is commonly used in the research laboratory to measure learning and adaptation in C. elegans.

LaChanda Freeman, a teacher from Fulton County who instructs 6th and 8th grade students, said the workshop is a great opportunity to learn more about how to present science to students.

“It really does help the teachers’ creativity towards skill building for the students to be learning the scientific method,” said Freeman, who previously worked with C. elegans.

In fact, one of her students, Javon Bonds, used C. elegans for a science project and gained second prize during a national competition.

“Javon used nicotine and syrup,” Freeman said. “His aunt was a smoker and had passed away, and he wanted to see if nicotine attracted the worms.”

Beyond learning about the worms’ responses, lab experiments in the classroom instill greater concepts – the scientific method, as well as how science, math and other subjects are all tied together.

“We want to show students that there is no ‘right’ answer,” Johnson said. “We observe. This is what we do as scientists. I see new undergraduates at Georgia State discovering that, and we hope that 6th through 12th graders will get a little bit of that.”

Shakirah Weldon, a 6th grade math and science teacher at Redan Middle School in DeKalb County, was thrilled to take part in the workshop.

“I’m generally a math teacher, but combining subjects allows kids to have a greater connection,” she said. “I’m pulling out a lot of the math to see how it’s related to science.”

For more about the Bio-Bus program at Georgia State, visit For more about biology at GSU, visit

Aug. 6, 2012