Advancing Collaboration Since 1878: My day in 8th grade

By Bart Bronk

One of the great fallacies of 20th century education is that the middle school experience should look like “mini high school.”

While young adolescents are certainly ready for new academic challenges and structures at this age, too many schools fall into the trap of directly mimicking elements of the high school experience – a high degree of teacher control and required obedience, huge homework loads, long, make-or-break tests and exams – that are actually inimical to the healthy development of 11-14 year olds. This approach results – somewhat unsurprisingly – in the early onset of other, less desirable high school behaviors (social risk taking, for example) and issues like depression and anxiety.

More troublingly, this misguided approach also crowds out some of the natural instincts and dispositions that make this period of development so special.

The Middle School Journey

What I’ve appreciated, as the parent of a freshman who spent three happy years in the University Liggett middle school, and what I look forward to, as the parent of a fifth grader who will begin his own middle school journey next year, is that our program and its dedicated faculty and administrators treat grades 6-8 as a unique and treasured time in students’ lives, a time in which they are more open to and invested in learning and personal development than perhaps any other period.

Middle school shouldn’t be a transition that kids survive; it should be a destination in which they thrive. Our program gives students the space to safely explore their burgeoning identities, the context to explore their relationships with others, the tools to see learning as a journey rather than a task, and ample opportunities to continue to be, fundamentally, kids – to laugh, to play, to move, to enjoy.

My day with 8th grader Rachel served as powerful evidence of the value of this approach. Throughout the day, I was struck by how teachers capitalized on, and made room for, one of the most powerful instincts of young adolescents – the desire to collaborate and interact with peers – to create dynamic and engaging classrooms.

Algebra

We began our day in algebra with Ms. Alles. After a 24-challenge game to warm up, students examined multiple ways of looking at, and describing, the slope of a line. I reflected on how different the approach, in which students worked backwards from graphs and diagrams and grappled with how to express what was happening mathematically, was from my own introduction to the topic which was something like “here’s the equation.

Now repeat it over and over.” In the space and time afforded for grappling, students commented on each others’ ideas. Even when my own traditional instincts were screaming “give them the answer!” Mrs. Alles calmly allowed students to navigate together to their own meaning.

This spirit of embracing and creating room for collaboration extended into second period Chinese with Mrs. Liang. Students grappled with weather words and phrases in all three phases of foreign language instruction – speaking, reading, and writing.

Movement was not only allowed, but encouraged through a fun game of Simon Says. Students checked in with each other frequently, working together to build understanding of the topic.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”

In social studies with Mrs. Morgan, we screened part of the legendary film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as students studied legislative processes (including the noted filibuster). They were trying to answer the essential question, “Can one person affect change or does it require people working together?”

Collaboration was built into the exercise, as students took notes on the film not as individuals, but with assigned roles for the greater understanding of the group: roles like summarizer, or specific focuses on imagery, technology, and culture.

Continuing in the humanities, Mr. Shade’s English class focused on reading the Conan Doyle mystery “The Speckled Band.” In teams, they worked to find textual examples of literary elements like mood, theme, suspense, foreshadowing and the classic red herring and in character evaluation.

The room was bustling with learning and students cheered on a quieter classmate for a well-crafted response.

Ice skating and collaboration

In Mrs. Bachmann’s PE class, it was a skating day and the girls were playing hockey. (What a special thing it is to be able to skate in our own rink for gym!) Even though the competitive spirit was high, more palpable was the spirit of collaboration.

Players helped each other up, high-fived great plays, and stopped when someone fell down. The most advanced skaters, in particular, worked hard to get their less experienced peers involved.

Backstreet’s Back!

We ended our day in Ms. Kendall’s art class, where students worked on end-of-year projects including some bas relief carving and print-making.

Again, I was struck how the collaborative, social instinct was critical in their work. In addition to checking in with the teacher on skill questions, students readily discussed and shared their ideas and progress with each other.

The class, and the day, ended in perhaps the most middle school way possible; the entire group belting out a Backstreet Boys song.

Throughout the day, I saw ample evidence of the gifts of an expert middle school educator: recognizing that conversation and murmurs – “noise” to a more control-oriented teacher – are simply that powerful natural desire to collaborate.

Even when one student stood up and jab-stepped with an imaginary basketball (we were in the heart of basketball season), learning and contributions continued. I walked away from my day thinking how detrimental the standard “shhh” or “sit down and be quiet,” which we may recall from our own middle school days, would have been to a beautiful, social, and powerful learning process.

Advancing Skill Development Since 1878: My Day as a Freshman

By Bart Bronk

I recently received a message from a University Liggett School graduate, and now college sophomore at a Big 10 university, recounting an assignment in one of her classes in which students had to watch a “how-to” video on creating an annotated bibliography – a key piece of the academic research process. In the video, the professor exasperatedly expresses his dismay and disbelief that “they don’t teach you this in high school!” I responded with something to the effect, to use the modern parlance, of “ARP for the win!” Our alumna had first encountered this core research skill as a ninth-grader, in a variety of her courses on Cook Rd.

At University Liggett School, we believe that skills like these should be at the heart of the educational process. While content – the “stuff,” the materials, the facts and the figures of education – is a necessary medium for building those skills, our priority is to leverage that content to impart and grow in our charges the kinds of skills that will be useful across disciplines and subjects. We want our students to build the critical, transferrable aptitudes that we believe, and that our alumna’s anecdote suggests, will serve them in college and career beyond. Fifty years ago the purpose of an education may have been to give students a suitcase of content knowledge, but today we instead aim to give them a toolbox of skills. Simply put, we want to teach our students how to think, rather than what to think.

This vital process of skill-building was apparent throughout my day shadowing freshman Taveon C. We began our day in Mr. Homuth’s ARP 9 class where the class conducted a group reading of an advanced text, a scholarly book review of a new non-fiction work. Students stopped frequently to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary, to review key ideas, and to raise questions. They were practicing, together, a skill that will be critical for them to possess as individuals: the ability to grapple with, interrogate, and, fundamentally, deeply understand, a complex text (something we English majors know as “close reading”).

Our next two classes, World History with Mr. Pangrazzi and Core I English with Mr. Knote, focused on a similarly vital writing skill – the process of revision. History students conferenced with Mr. Pangrazzi on edits to their individual essays on “How to Rule an Empire” (written as putative advisors to an ancient throne). Those who finished began to work on annotated bibliographies for sources they would use on the midterm essays (and getting that six-year head start that our alumna appreciated!). In English, students met individually with Mr. Knote on revising body paragraphs of an analytical essay on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, part of a carefully scaffolded writing process in which they learn to build, piece by piece, effective, long-form academic writing. Mr. Knote reminded us of his belief that “there is no such thing as a good writer – only a good re-writer.”

In Honors Geometry with Mr. DeFauw, students conducted a variety of hands-on exercises with paper triangles. They drew a variety of converging lines from bases and vertices to create their own definitions of cicrcumcenters, incenters, centroids, and orthocenters. To cement this new understanding of these mathematically important properties of triangles, they then recreated the exercise digitally in a program called Geogebra. The skills on display in this exercise were agency and analysis, as students had to create their own meaning rather than having it simply provided to them for consumption, which is how many of us may remember math instruction.

We ended our day in biology, where students were reviewing, via fun electronic “Kahoot” quizzes, and drawing diagrams on personal white boards, as they prepared for a semester exam experience – their first in high school. This reminded me that the act of studying itself is a skill, and that students are best served when they are guided not just in what to study, but how to study – in this case, learning to “chunk” a large body of material in to manageable “bites” and mastering it over time, rather than “cramming” it all at once.

I finished my day as a freshman physically tired (boy they do a lot of walking!) but intellectually energized, as I contemplated the quality and depth of the intellectual activities they experienced and saw so many nascent, yet growing skills, which plant the seeds of rich, successful, and fulfilling academic lives to come.

Advancing Diverse Instruction Since 1878 — My day as a sophomore

By Bart Bronk
Head of School

Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.

One of the most persistent educational myths of the last three or four decades professes power of individual “learning styles” to impact the educative process. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the notion that each individual had a learning style – be it auditory, visual, or kinesthetic – that worked best for him or her, and others that decidedly did not work, swept the globe. Incredible resources were poured in to helping teachers diversify their instructional styles and identify, and cater to, what worked best for each student. As recently as the mid 2010s, some 90% of teachers professed belief that this idea was indisputable.

Recent advances in neuroscience, however – chief among them the ability to monitor brain activity in real time, via MRI, during cognitive activities – and a wave of scientific reviews critical of flawed research that failed to meet the rigorous scientific conditions necessary to prove that such individual predilections exist have largely debunked this theory (see this terrific article from the April 2018 Atlantic if you are interested in learning more).

The reality is that our brain, which advances in neuroscience continue to prove is far more complex and interconnected than previously imagined, learns in all these ways. Each of us is capable, excepting those with diagnosed sensory processing issues, of learning through sight, sound, and touch, and we all employ all of those tools in learning processes in appropriate measure depending on the task at hand. A teacher catering to one exclusively and intentionally provides no tangible benefit.

The best teachers then, of course, use their own toolboxes of instructional strategies that cross these sensory boundaries and create learning opportunities that are diverse and engaging.

That’s just what I experienced in my day shadowing sophomore John K. Our day began in Ms. Kendall’s yearbook photography class, where John and classmates were engaged in the visual exercise of selecting and editing photos based on desired traits – composition, color, and tone – and learning about what makes a photograph particularly engaging to the viewer.

In Senor Carunchia’s intermediate Spanish class, we were immersed in an auditory/verbal learning process. Students mastered the future tense in small group conversations about their upcoming weekend. Interestingly, rather than give English counterparts for Spanish words he was using that the students had not yet encountered, the teacher used visual cues – hand motions – to indicate the word.  The exercise was both practice and performance – valuable skills for our students to have.

In Mrs. Galea’s chemistry class, we participated in a sweet – quite literally – kinesthetic exercise. To kick off their study of stoichiometry – the study of chemical reactions – students were using ingredients and their Bunsen burners to make S’mores and discovering what limiting reactants were (in this case, chocolate).

Continuing our experience in STEM, Mr. Hartigan’s algebra II class was a powerful example that visual learning itself can be diverse. Rather than simply relying on symbolic images – numbers and operators – to introduce the students to logarithms, graphs and real world examples related to velocity and distance were used to illustrate how logarithmic relationships work.

We ended our day in the Mr. Guedes’s U.S. history course, which focuses closely on the history of the city, state and region, where students were working in a team on projects to communicate their understanding of the reconstruction era in Detroit. Their final project was to create an Escape Room – in the upper school faculty lounge no less – which required demonstrated knowledge of the era to solve physical clues. In teams that ran the gamut from research to puzzles to refreshments, teams worked on creating a kinesthetic experience that reflected their deep understanding of the topic.

I regularly profess my admittedly biased belief to students that there is “no such thing as a bad day at University Liggett School.” This day, on which I experienced learning I could hear, see, touch – and even smell and taste – was a great one.

Advancing Rigor Since 1878 – My Day as a Junior

By Bart Bronk

Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the

In forensics class with Dr. Muller and Ms. Fugitt, students performed a blood spatter lab, which mimicked the work forensic technicians do trying to recreate information about a crime from blood evidence. In our protective suits, we explored how droplets of blood create different splatter patterns based on height, and the students gained a deeper understanding of the science based on hands-on experimentation than could be achieved in the traditional lecture.

University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.

There was a time at University Liggett School when “rigor” was considered a bad word. As the school developed its signature approach, we eschewed the word rigor because it has been associated with so much that is wrong about traditional education: the memorization and regurgitation of content, hours of pointless busy work, practice by rote, learning tired old answers rather than creating new questions. Rigor in the academy has for too long been defined by the questions “how much” and “how fast” rather than “why?”

Recently, though, we’ve repatriated – and redefined – the term. Rigor, in the Liggett approach, reflects depth of understanding, creative expression, intellectual grappling, and original insight – the types of relevant skills that will make our students successful in elite colleges and universities and in careers beyond that may not yet exist.

This new kind of rigor was on display throughout my day with junior Gabby C.

In first-period orchestra, the group performed a full run through of its upcoming winter concert. Well beyond playing the right note at the right time, the practice was focused on nuance, expression of theme, and the interconnection and interplay of the various voices in the group. Ms. Helge frequently sought musician feedback on the expressions of particular motives on a number of pieces. As a group, they weren’t worrying about playing it right, they were focused on playing it well.

Long-period gothic lit comprised a writing session and individual conversations on writing with Dr. Moiles. The students were choosing and expounding on creative prompts to practice writing skills and extend their understanding of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. From a field of creative prompts that included “write a college essay in the voice of a character” to “create a eulogy for a character,” Gabby chose a prompt on narratology and explored how Morrison uses point of view to enhance the rich world she builds. Dr. Moiles conferenced individually with students and also commented in real-time on shared documents, employing Google classroom to provide timely feedback to each individual.

In forensics class with Dr. Muller and Ms. Fugitt, students performed a blood spatter lab, which mimicked the work forensic technicians do trying to recreate information about a crime from blood evidence. In our protective suits, we explored how droplets of blood create different splatter patterns based on height, and the students gained a deeper understanding of the science based on hands-on experimentation than could be achieved in the traditional lecture.

New rigor in the modern language classroom means, among other things, true immersion. University Liggett School’s program aims for 85% of instruction and dialogue to be in the target language. Even in an advanced Chinese class in which Gabby was taking a test, this commitment to immersive rigor was on display. All instructions, a few hints, and even a few student exclamations (about the difficulty of the assessment!) were in Mandarin.

Even in Gabby’s free period I saw evidence of new rigor in the Liggett approach. Gabby spent her free time working on a watercolor painting in the art studio, which represented her understanding of a novel about Malinche from her Latin American studies class. I asked who designed the assessment and she replied “me!” Students in the class were asked to design their own projects and evaluative rubrics to communicate their interpretations of this novel of the Spanish conquest.

My day as a junior ended in algebra II where students built automaticity with radical expressions and operations. Indeed, diligent and repeated practice still has a place in this new model, but only when that practice is necessary to build more complex understandings; the group was preparing to encounter radical equations. Even this exercise of rote was engaging: it was gamified, as students used their answers to compete to decode silly riddles.

Educational traditionalists become nervous when the quality and rigor of an experience can’t be defined by the number of pages covered or the number of hours of homework given or the number of repetitions accomplished. I’d hold my day as a junior as powerful evidence that the true measure of excellence is how deeply students are thinking and how creatively they are expressing their learning and understanding.

Advancing Flexible Thinking Since 1878 – My Day as a Senior

By Bart Bronk

Head of School Bart Bronk is shadowing a student in each grade level to experience the University Liggett School approach through the students’ eyes.

I found my guide, senior Maria P., in second period yearbook class in the school’s Mac Lab. She and her classmates dove right into the work, each finalizing a set of pages for the first submission of this student-produced annual publication, which was due in a few days.

As the advisor, Mr. Pangrazzi and the editor, Maria, checked in, team members were engaged in a variety of tasks, including writing, editing, photography and graphic design. I was struck both by how independent –and yet interdependent, as students sought feedback from peers throughout –their work was, and how the class demanded flexible thinking and problem solving in the pursuit of a tangible outcome in ways that mimicked the real world.   I could have just as easily found myself in a newsroom on deadline or corporate marketing department and seen the same traits and skills displayed.

Intellectual flexibility and dexterity were indeed the themes for the day. After community time, we attended ARP in which seniors worked on their individual projects. Maria benefitted from an extended dialogue with her instructor Dr. Larson in choosing which path her project on the role of neuroscience plays in criminal behavior and the criminal justice and corrections systems might take.

Mr. Butzu’s Shakespeare class featured an engrossing discussion on the motivations of Polonius related to his daughter Ophelia, her relationship with Prince Hamlet, and his own standing with King Claudius in which students capably drew support for their interpretations from two texts – the Bard’s original play and Kenneth Brannagh’s filmic interpretation. So compelling and well supported were their arguments that Mr. Butzu confessed to having his “weekend plans ruined” by the students’ challenging of his own longstanding interpretations of the play.

The power of student voice and intellectual risk-taking were equally amplified in Dr. Lam’s Eagle and the Bear course on U.S.-Russian relations. Student presentations on Russian’s information warfare tactics and recent aggressions against Ukraine in the Sea of Amoz were followed by team meetings on group research projects; Maria’s group is investigating the role of the Space Race in the 1960s as a proxy front for the Cold War.

The day ended with a standard deviation scavenger hunt in Mrs. Harris’s probability and statistics class, in which student teams of two (selected via random probability, of course) encountered and solved real world problems related to standard distribution. The level of movement – and enthusiasm – was certainly unlike the math classes I remember!

I ended my day as a senior heartened by Maria’s estimation that it was a “pretty typical day at Liggett.” If “pretty typical” means intellectually energizing, student-centered, and dynamic, we have a lot to be proud of.

Sports stadium economics in two cities

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium+Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena – how did these two landmarks contribute to the cities they call home is the focus of Matthew Monsour’s ARP.

You started out with a much bigger scope of studying the economic prosperity of both cities, but narrowed it down to a more digestible look at each city’s sports stadium. Walk us through your research.
Sure. I decided to focus in on three areas of interest: funding, impact on housing, and other workforce issues. I found the funding part of this very interesting, and learned that the majority of Little Caesars Arena (LCA) funding came from private sources, and the rest came from tax incremental funding, or TIF, on city buildings. As the building taxes increase, a portion will go to finance the arena, and will pay it off over 30 years, and also fund other projects. In Atlanta, they used a simple extra service tax on hotel rooms, and some private funding.

In Detroit, no housing was displaced because LCA was built on a vacant lot owned by the Illitch family, the owners of LCA. As part of the agreement, two buildings will be made into affordable housing, the Eddystone, and the United Artists Theatre Building, which will be mixed residential and office space.

Workforce was most impacted by LCA. By executive order, more than 50 percent of workers on the project had to be Detroit residents, and 30 percent of contracting firms had to be based in Detroit. More than 60 percent of the firms were located in Detroit, but only 27 percent of workers came from Detroit, so $3 million in fines were levied by the city. The fines contributed to training programs to kickstart the workforce.

Your brother and sister were also lifers at Liggett. Did they do ARPs?
My sister was the second class to do an ARP, and she focused on obesity in the U.S. I don’t know all the details, but I’m sure she still does! My brother did an internship instead.

What are your favorite Liggett classes?
American Government and the American Electoral Process were my two favorites. I’m really interested in the political process and I had a great time taking those classes last year. It was great how they lined up with the election. I’m currently in a class on the Middle East, and we’re learning about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It’s so complicated, so I’m interested to sit and learn what is going on. I really enjoy it.

What else do you like to do?
I’m a drummer, and in college, I’ll probably expand on this. I love to play golf, hang out with my family, exercise, and keep as busy as I can throughout the day. In college, I’m hoping to study business, real estate or business law…and work on music.

What benefit have you enjoyed from attending Liggett?
Liggett has helped me make connections outside the community, and encouraged me to stretch out and be independent. Liggett allows you to take that step to initiate discussions and ask questions. I like how they let you have your own voice and lead things. Having that responsibility prepares me for the coming years, and it’s great to have the trust of the faculty to do the very best you can.

Internet for the World

George Gotfredson knows how the free flow of information can impact lives. He shared insight into his research on global Internet.

Your original thoughts for your ARP focused on the high cost of college. You decided against that in favor of a focus on the impact of wireless internet on developing countries.
Yeah, the first idea involved a lot of spreadsheets. So, I switched gears. Internet is integral to our lives, and I wanted to study how giving access to those around the world will impact their education, their health, their agriculture, their everyday lives.

I focused on viable solutions to providing Internet access, and analyzed four solutions. The first is Google’s Project Loon, which involves hot air balloons with mini cell towns that beam internet down. There are a lot of challenges with scale, and little way to monetize. The second is building infrastructure, which is difficult in unstable governments where land ownership isn’t as clear cut as it is here. Also, it’s not as appropriate for rural areas. A third is Aquila and its software arm, Internet.org. Aquila is a solar-powered, lightweight aircraft that flies for 90 days and brings Internet to the areas below. Internet.org is code that people can download onto their phones and offers a basic version of the Internet, with no videos or images. Both are by Facebook. The final solution is probably the best one right now. It’s called OneWeb, and it’s a mass-produced satellite that could be launched and provide signals to user terminals. It’s being tested right now.

Wow. That’s comprehensive. How did you choose to go the tech route?
I’ve always been interested in technology and the tech that goes into these projects is important. It was great to compare the specifics of the technology, and the feasibility—who has the best solution? Will it be the most effective?

Here’s the question you are being asked a lot right now: next year?
I’m going to the University of Richmond in Virginia to study piano performance and business, and I might minor in organ performance. My life goal is to never have a boss, because I want to be the boss. I want to be an entrepreneur.

How has your experience at Liggett prepared you for your future success?
Liggett has a curriculum that can be morphed around students’ interests, especially with project-based study. Teachers give you the framework, and encourage you to dive into what you are interested in, and your learning builds on itself. In middle school, we learned the basics of how to do research, and rounded that up in eighth grade science. As freshmen, we learned about reliable sources and how to cite them. And there’s a real connection between the students and teachers; it sounds cliché, but it’s really unique. Plenty of teachers help students with their ARP, even if they aren’t the student’s teacher. Whether it’s math or engineering, they always help, and are interested and willing.

Any lifelong memories to share?
One thing I will remember is the Pleasant Lake outdoor education experience in sixth grade. As a junior you can apply to be a counselor, and you can go back as a senior. That experience is by far the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s a blast. You build relationships with counselors, and then it’s more fun going back as a counselor. It’s really, really cool.

Individualizing treatment for a rare disease

Kelly Solak shared insights into myasthenia gravis, and how a snapshot tool can help direct physicians to the best treatment.

What is myasthenia gravis and what is the focus of your research?
Myasthenia gravis is a rare neuromuscular disease which affects the muscles of the body. It’s a very rare autoimmune disease—only 20 people in 100,000 have it. It can affect a person’s arms, or legs, or torso, or their breathing, or the muscles in their eyes. It usually presents itself in women in their second and third decades of life, or in men in their seventh or eighth decades.

Because this disease is so varied and individual, there is not a straight treatment route. I’m focusing in on a “quality of life survey” that will take snapshots for two weeks to help determine the best treatment. The survey has 15 questions that you ask one or two times a day. Instead of asking something like “can you walk up the stairs?” or “can you hold a carton of milk?” it asks “how long can you walk up the stairs before becoming fatigued?” This helps create a concise treatment route for the patient. It’s very specific.

I consulted with Michal Haran, M.D., at Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, Israel. She developed the original quality of life survey, and I built my project around her survey. Also Abbas Jowkar, M.D., who is in the Department of Neurology at Wayne State University School of Medicine, sponsored my research as a principal investigator. It was a long process, but I have met a lot of great people in the field. It’s difficult saying you are a high school student doing a project because they are busy, but if they are willing to take the time to help you, it’s pretty amazing.

You have personal experience with this disease.
Yes. My brother has this disease and he got it when he was 16 or 17 years old. His name is Kurt and he attended Liggett as well, and graduated in 2016. He’s 20 now.

What other topics were you also interested in pursuing for your ARP?
I’m a hockey player, so something regarding sports medicine. Women’s hockey is not as dominant as men’s, so maybe something about anatomy or sports management related to hockey. We were encouraged to choose something we are interested in but won’t get bored of. I play hockey four times a week, and add a project about hockey on top of that? This topic is definitely outside of my comfort zone.

How do you manage your time?
I prioritize. I bring work to the rink and do it with teammates. I also work as a waitress and barista at a bistro, and I love reading. I talk with the librarian who hands me new books when I come in. I read historical fiction, most are in the WWII era, I’d say.

I learned how to do correct research, find the right information, the right sources, and how to write in a scientific way. I gained confidence in reaching out to people. I also learned an appreciation for doing something different, not setting barriers, and never saying something is too big. It’s better to do something too big and reach a little farther than high school normally permits you to. In four years, you are out of high school, and on to college, and in the life after, you are more prepared. I had to start my project from scratch, and my inspiration was my brother. I also had help from my dad in approaching situations.

Research that could change lives

For her ARP, Kaelan Patel jumped into medical research that could be used to treat sickle cell anemia, and shared with us what she learned.

Your topic is currently being researched at a pretty high level: a gene therapy called CRISPR/Cas9.
Tell us about it.

It’s an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which were originally found in bacterial DNA. Bacteria used these repeats as a way to fight off infection, and doctors experimented to see if they could manipulate human DNA to fight off invading illnesses as a model after the bacterial CRISPRs. They discovered that they could create CRISPRs that could be guided to exact locations of genes by R

NA molecules to attack mutated sections of the DNA that cause life altering ailments such as sickle cell anemia (SCA). Then, the Cas9 protein in human DNA cuts the mutated section of DNA so a donor DNA template that has the corrected sequence to heal is inserted. I have decided to focus my research on SCA because it is a devastating and painful disease. Currently, patients suffering from SCA only have three options for treatment, which include a drug called hydroxyurea, blood transfusion, and bone marrow transplant.

You worked with mentors locally at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and at UC Berkeley. What were these experiences like?
I worked both with Dr. [Michael] Callaghan from the Pediatric Hematology Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, and Dr. [Jeffrey] Corn, from UC Berkeley. Dr. Callaghan offers the perspective of using current treatments, and I had the opportunity to interview all of his patients over the summer to talk about their treatments, as well as how SCA affects their daily lives. I learned none of the patients had heard of CRISPR/Cas9. At Dr. Corn’s lab, I experienced the equipment and processes used to collect data that will prove CRISPR is safe enough to start human clinical trials. They are getting close to the numbers they need to earn approval.

What are some of the other topics you considered?
Stem cell therapy to treat disease, and also CRISPR/Cas9’s use in treating cardiovascular disease, which has environmental factors, and high efficacy rates for current treatments. SCA is a monogenic disease with few environmental factors, and no effective treatment for patients who suffer intense pain and shortened life spans.

What is the most challenging thing about presenting this topic?
There is so much to say and only one poster board and three minutes to talk! For people to comprehend the topic, I need to define a lot of material to make it understandable to someone who is learning about it for the first time.

Diving in to her ARP

We asked Emma Leonard to explain why marine mammals struggle to coexist with a military presence in their waters.

Your ARP focuses on something a lot of people know very little about: the effects of military sonar on cetaceans, specifically whales.
Yes. Sound is the most important thing in the life of whales. They use it to find food, and change diving patterns all year to find the right temperature of water for mating and birthing. When the military started using mid-frequency sonar after the Cold War, this resulted in a drastic increase in cetacean strandings. What’s happening is the whales and the sonar are interfering with each other, and whales are suffering from decompression sickness from moving up and down too quickly in the water.

You seem to have a passion for marine biology.
I do. My parents met in California, and I have family out there, and we have always visited the ocean. And it’s just so unexplored. I have a thing for outer space, too, but we know more about space than we do the oceans, which cover 75 percent of our planet. Too few people are exploring the waters, and there is so much to be explored.

What else are you passionate about?
In eighth grade, I wanted to be a fashion designer. My mom went to fashion school and worked for Levi’s, and we have bonded over fashion. I work on costume design for the fall and winter theater shows at school, and have every year since I was a freshman. I’m a visual person, a very visual learner.

How will you be presenting your ARP?
I realized my project would be more engaging if I did more than write a paper and cite my sources. I learned that it’s important to recognize that I had to make my own connections and use outside sources to shape them. I had to use my own brain. So, while I wasn’t going to build military-grade sonar, I used Arduino, with a board and wires and coding system. I was able to figure out the ping is in the 40,000 Hz. I realized people don’t know a lot about sonar, so I will do a demonstration with a meter stick to get people to understand how it works under water. I showed this at the Detroit Science Fair where I played the sound of a frequency that we can hear. I won a Naval Science Award for environmental management.

When we take the first course in ARP, people think it’s annoying, but by the end of senior year, you recognize how the experience gives you issues to really talk about, as well as research skills, citation and science writing skills, all of which will be helpful in college and the rest of my life.

What’s next for you?
I’ll be going to the University of Colorado at Boulder because they have an ecology and evolutionary biology program, plus one of the best physics programs, so I’ll minor in geophysics. Their honors program allows students to do a four-year honors thesis, so I can continue with the project I’m doing now, or choose another project to study instead.