Studying a tiny plant, the duckweed, are, sitting, Rachel Reichner and Eric Tepper; standing, Katie Fishbein and Ben Sultan. Aaron Keigher

A recent report by The National Academies, the nation’s top advisory group on science and technology, found that the U.S. ranks 48th out of 133 developed and developing nations in the quality of math and science instruction. Last month a New York Times editorial reacting to the report stated that “too often, science curriculums are grinding and unimaginative.” However, a new nontraditional “Science Research Course” offered by the Frisch School in Paramus appears to be anything but a grind. Through a grant funded by the National Science Foundation and G.E. Healthcare, Frisch has been able to offer “The Waksman Students Scholars Program: HiGene: A Genome Sequencing Project” as a new elective course for its juniors.

“The program is exquisitely creative,” said Mindy Furman, chair of the science department, who teaches the course. “The goal is to develop a passion for science in students and ultimately to help encourage them to pursue careers in science. It’s an opportunity to do authentic hands-on research with publication, on a topic that’s very timely, all in the school day.”

The project involves the analysis of genes from a tiny plant, Wolffia australiana, the duckweed. The seemingly insignificant organism has been recently recognized as having many potential uses.

Frisch 11th-graders, ages 15 and 16, who are taking the class, explained the importance of the tiny plant. “Duckweed produces more ethanol than corn. So we could make alternate fuel sources without using up food,” explained Rachel Reichner of Spring Valley, N.Y. It is estimated that nearly one third of the U.S. corn crop is converted into ethanol-based fuels.

“Duckweed grows more quickly than corn,” added Aaron Dardik of Livingston, highlighting another advantage of the special little plant.

“If you were to create food from duckweed,” said Teaneck resident Eliora Wolf, “it would be used for animal feed. And the animals can provide food for humans. And if you give this product to animals instead of corn, then you can use the corn for humans instead.” The plant reportedly has up to six times as much starch as corn, is higher in protein than soybeans, and serves as an important food source for waterfowl. In some Asian countries it is consumed by humans.

Duckweed “also cleans up ponds and lakes and takes out toxic metals,” added Rachel.

Ariana Schanzer expanded on that point. “Bioremediation involves cleaning up toxins from the environment. They are using [duckweed] in several countries, such as Bangladesh, to clean up water.” The plants absorb nitrogen and phosphates as well as metals.

“There are 50 schools involved in the project, mostly in New Jersey,” said Furman. “Rutgers provides all the equipment on loan, and all supplies” needed for the project. The list includes thousands of dollars worth of equipment and materials that would typically be found in advanced college and graduate level research labs, such as Pipetmen, microcentrifuges, thermocycler, gel boxes, restriction enzymes, and primers for PCR.

“I learned about the program through a parent,” said Furman, who added that Frisch is the only yeshiva among the 50 participating schools. Furman spent three weeks at Rutgers University this summer training for the project. Two Frisch students, Ariana Schanzer and Hannah Lebovics, both from Englewood, accompanied her to the summer workshop, learning the complex procedures.

The website of the Waksman Students Scholars Program for 2010-2011 explains that “students in the project will isolate and sequence genes from Wolffia australiana. The sequences of these genes has never been determined before and this information will be deposited in the international sequence databases for the students and other scientists to use.” In other words, the high school students who participate in the program will discover new information about the genes of this unique plant, and will share their discoveries by publishing them online.

Andrew Vershon, a professor at Rutgers’ Waksman Institute, developed and runs the project. Described by Furman as “an amazing guy,” he says that his vision is to provide students an entrée into the world of science research at an early age. Furman explained that Vershon and his team developed the approach used in this study, including detailed instructions and manuals designed to provide guidance to the teachers and students who are new to such high-tech computer-based research.

“Rutgers has constructed a cDNA library,” said Furman, referring to a collection of bacterial colonies that carry genes of the organism. For the project, Rutgers scientists provide bacterial plates that have colonies of cells carrying specific duckweed genes (see sidebar). Each bacterial colony, known as a clone, is a cluster of cells that grew from one parent cell.

“The goal is that each student should analyze four clones,” said Furman. “We practiced for a week how to use the Pipetman,” she said, noting that students have learned techniques needed to measure and transfer the tiny volumes of material used in molecular biology research. Students were also introduced to methods for growing bacteria as well as extracting DNA from the cells.

The DNA is tested through a procedure called PCR, to measure the size of the duckweed gene in each clone. If the duckweed DNA fragment is large enough, then the bacteria from the clone are grown in a test tube and prepared for sequencing. That sample is sent back to Rutgers where it is decoded to reveal the genetic code for the duckweed genes.

“Dr. Vershon developed an amazing computer program, [the] DSAP, DNA Sequence Analysis Program,” said Furman. “It takes the kids step by step through how to analyze the sequence.”

“It’s user-friendly,” said Eliora. “The professors at Rutgers check everything we do. When we finish the analysis of the protein we can submit it to the database of the NCBI – the databases of all different kinds of organisms. Any scientist can access it.”

The DSAP program links to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), which maintains a massive database of known DNA sequence information. “The students ‘mine’ the database for the same [or similar] DNA sequences,” said Furman. “The program converts the sequence to the amino acid sequence and compares it to known amino acid sequences.” In this way it may be possible to determine what the gene actually does in the plant.

“We ask whether it is ubiquitous or novel to duckweed. We send that information back to Rutgers and [scientists at] Rutgers check it,” said Furman. “We are online with Rutgers at every point. We upload all the data. We post everything on Google Docs and it is checked by the Rutgers people.

“Then we submit it to the NCBI where it gets published on the web,” Furman said. “We get national recognition.”

Next summer, students will be able to present reports on the genes they have analyzed at a symposium at Rutgers.

The biggest challenge, reported Furman, is that the students have to complete the laboratory work in four 43-minute periods each week. Some of the procedures need longer periods of time for completion. “How to stop a protocol and put it in the fridge where it won’t get messed up … from a research standpoint that’s been a challenge,” she said.

The project combines sophisticated biology research with high-powered computer technology. Furman acknowledged the contributions of Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky, director of education technology at Frisch, who has helped to implement the computer-based aspects of the project. The new Frisch facility, with state of the art science and computer labs, has been a tremendous factor in the success of the project, she said.

Eleven students chose the course as an elective. “These kids are the pioneers,” said Furman. “They signed up for the course not knowing what they were getting into.”

“It sounded like an extremely interesting course,” said Jesse Silverman of Teaneck. “We are doing a lot of the things we learned about in ninth grade, but at a college level and with college-level equipment. I thought it was really cool that so much science research is being done on computer databases rather than the lab.”

Jeremy Appelbaum of Suffern, N.Y., appreciated the hands-on biology, as well as the computer analysis. “I particularly liked seeing how gels run to see how long the DNA is,” he said. “In the computer analysis you have to take apart each bit and piece to see what it does. We want to find part of the genome and find what it does. We don’t know enough about it; that’s why we’re doing the project.”

Kate Fishbein of Livingston is interested in becoming a research scientist or a doctor. “As a high school student who wants a career in science, I thought this would be a project that is relevant to the world.”

Eric Tepper of Teaneck communicated his responses by texting. “I’m interested in possibly pursuing a career in science,” he wrote. “It is a good hands-on introduction to what I may see in the future. The program is educational and interesting, yet fun at the same time.”

“It’s a great opportunity that at this age we can contribute to the science world,” said Ben Sultan of West Orange. “We’re not just learning, but also contributing.”