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Turn 'em on to science, turn 'em into scientists!

Remember Tom Sawyer's scheme to get out of white-washing his aunt's fence?

Though he despised the assignment. the youna manipulator set to work on the fence with gusto stepping back to admire his work just as other children walked by. Entranced by the fun Tom seemed to be having, Tom persuaded the others that they should pay for the pleasure of sharing the fun.

Today in Montana, scientists and weed experts are teaming up to make science interesting enough so students will want to work in agriculture and major in agricultural sciences.

"Our goal is to expose young folks to agricultural problems, and through hands-on experiences. let them learn how to manage them. This should excite some to go on and major in agricultural science. We need science majors who will build on our work and accomplish even more," says Chuck Egan, county extension agent in Stillwater County, Montana.

"While we don't expect all of our students to become weed scientists, entomologists, or even agriculture majors, we hope they will find science as fascinating as we do. That should encourage more of them to major in some scientific field," says Agricultural Research Service entomologist Norm Rees.

Egan, Rees, and Wayne Pearson, Stillwater County weed agent, cooperated in developing a science program to educate students.

With this unique project, students learn about science while conducting research and attempting to control leafy spurge, a noxious weed that is already ranked as one of the worst in the Northern Great Plains and Canada and that is threatening an even larger area. It has now appeared as far south as Arizona and New Mexico. The area occupied by leafy spurge is estimated to be enlarging by about 10 percent each year. thus doubling the area it infests about every 7 years.

Just for the Fun of It

Rees, who works at ARS' Biological Control of Weeds Research Unit at the Rangeland Weeds Laboratory in Bozeman, Montana, starts his three-part training with a course entitled Entomology for the Fun of It." "It covers the lighter side of entomology by explaining why insects are more than just squishy bugs - why you don't need to fear insects - how to understand their lifestyles. Students also learn how to identify a few of the 5,000 to 50,000 insect species found in a typical backyard.

The second phase of the course explains the delicate balance of how insects and plants interact and why attempts to control weeds with insects succeed or fail. Some insects kill other insects and spare the plant from feeding injury or from disease organisms that insects transport. Other beneficial insects feed on plants that are noxious.

The third part of the training allows students to conduct their own experiments, putting biocontrol to work: finding which insects are best at eating leafy spurge. how they affect the weed, and how several beneficial species interrelate.

Spurge produces a poisonous milky white latex that looks and feels like white glue. People who pull or cut leafy spurge must make sure to wash their hands because the poisons can irritate their eyes and other sensitive body tissue. Cattle that graze the plant develop blisters in the esophagus.

No known approved herbicide has been reported to kill 3-year-old and older spurge patches. Leafy spurge is so tough it can spring to life after 7 years of seed dormancy in soil treated with a soil sterilant.

Leafy spur,e first came to this country at least 200 years ago. It was most likely accidentally mixed with crop seeds that early settlers brought from Europe and Asia and in ballast that stabilized their ships. Many closely related but distinctly different biotypes of leafy spurge originated in different parts of Eurasia, and these strains may have crossbred in the United States to produce an even greater variety to combat.

The key to controlling leafy spurge in this country is importing insects and diseases from the native land of spurges to infest the various leafy spurge types. It is not a problem weed in its native lands. where it falls prey to insects and diseases.

These insects are carefully tested to make sure they can survive on only leafy spurge but not on valuable crop plants or native plant species of North America. When leafy spurge populations become reduced, so will the number of controlling insects and diseases.

Three high schools in Park City, Columbus, and Absarokee are currently involved.

"Growing, up in a farming community, we learned to hate insects because they destroy crops and sting cattle. After taking the course, I now see bugs completely different. They really, do more good than harm," says Thad Daniels, a sophomore at Columbus High School. Daniels says he hopes to learn more about entomology.

By the time the students complete the project, they will know how to use a research library conduct literature searches, perform the research, analyze the data, write technical papers, and present findings to groups such as the Montana Weed Control Association. They will essentially have conducted a mini-masters program before even entering college.

"The students are getting an opportunity to study insects and integrated pest management in depth," says Jim Larson, vocational agriculture instructor at Columbus High. He says the pro,ram is excellent. and he hopes it will help foster a greater appreciation for agrisciences.

"The students find the program interesting because they are learning about science while solving problems in their own community," says Tina Lynch, a participating teacher at Park City.

Students are assigned to areas that have been fenced to keep grazing wildlife and cattle from disturbing the experiment and eating leafy spurge plants. Students will count plants and study the insect populations to learn how they multiply in their new environment and record how much damage each species inflicts on spurge.

Students will also learn which soils, plant communities, and weather conditions favor the insects.

Weed control officials in Texas and Washington have heard of the project and have asked the group for advice in establishing similar projects in their states.
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Title Annotation:encouraging science students to learn
Author:Senft, Dennis
Publication:Agricultural Research
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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