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Labs in a box

U-M professor, student take high-level biology lessons to students in Benzie County

I know that I want to go to college.

Biology is one of my options.

I really, really think I want to go into the medical field.

I am from Benzonia, Michigan, which is up in northern Michigan. I was really interested in biology and science growing up, so I went to Benzie Central High School. Benzie is really resource-limited and then I came to a university that is really a leader in research.

[ambient lines from video: “How’s everybody doing? This is called the transformation mix. Do you guys remember reading about this in your handout?….What we’re gonna try and do right now is we’re gonna try and make [unintelligible]”

Dr. Simmons and Taylor Nye came to Benzie to do this experiment with us. And it’s something that not many high schools are going to get to experience.

This is Racquel Huddleston, the teacher that we do this outreach with. She was my teacher.

We only have about 412 students in the high school and I’ve been teaching here for 24 years.

[ambient lines from video: “See, how much fun is that?” “OK, excellent.”]

She was able to produce excellent students that really understand biology very well. Where she has been limited is in the laboratory.

I joined Dr. Lyle Simmons’ lab. I personally love science. I think that it’s the most fascinating subject that I could be studying. But what is most important is to see other students succeed.

The University of Michigan is a state school. We need to do what we can to give back to students in the state.

Having people come in and talk to my students, they can listen to the students that are at college, and it just makes it more real.

[ambient from video: “Any questions?”]

Those kids’ minds were just blown away.

[ambient from video: “Is it looking not so much clearer anymore?”]

You learn that it’s not an impediment coming from a small town, and that you have plenty of opportunities and chances to get out and do great things.

It’s been a very good collaboration and experience between us and the students at Benzie and Racquel.

[ambient from video: “And if you can get those three components inside of a cell, then you can target whatever you want to target.”]

I know that Dr. Simmons is not the only professor at U-M like that, but we sure are lucky that, that he cares about Benzie Central, and that he sees what we see here. These are amazing students. Taylor’s a part of that and, you know, I could tell you story after story of kids that they’ve made a huge difference in. I want my kids to feel that they are confident enough and strong enough and academically gifted that they can go do whatever they want to do.

Video Produced by Bob Berg, Michigan Media All photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography
By Kim North Shine

Students in Racquel Huddleston’s biology class at Benzie Central High School in northern Michigan show enormous promise to be life-changing scientists.

Benzie Central biology teacher Racquel Huddleston helps 11th grader Ausable Kreiner with a biology experiment.

Racquel Huddleston helps 11th grader Ausable Kreiner with an experiment.

Even so, the classroom has lacked funding and tools to support the students’ scientific curiosities.

But since 2015, University of Michigan student Taylor Nye along with Lyle Simmons, U-M associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, have been working with Huddleston’s class. Nye, a graduate of Benzie Central, and Simmons decided to take their love of science—and education—back to Nye’s hometown of Benzonia.

Every year, they box up labs on topics such as bacteria and the human genome, pack them into their car and drive 250 miles to Benzonia to unpack what becomes not only high-level scientific discovery but self-discovery.

Taylor Nye, PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and a Benzie Central grad, says that "what is most important is to see other students succeed."

“What is most important is to see other students succeed,” says PhD candidate Taylor Nye.

Simmons is convinced of the potential of the students.

Huddleston, he said, “was able to produce excellent students who really understand biology very well. Where she has been limited is the laboratory.”

Huddleston was Nye’s teacher so she can relate to the excellent program in the school.

“Despite limited resources, Racquel works tirelessly to push groups of talented students from a rural community in northern Michigan to achieve goals they do not imagine possible,” Nye said. “Lyle and I have set out to assist her to provide resources, awareness and opportunities to these students.”

An $12,000 NSF grant secured by the University of Michigan helped provide needed research tools and laptops to Benzie Central students.

An NSF grant helped Benzie Central get research tools and laptops.

Nye said she also knows that many of the students don’t see themselves as future scientists, even with their talents and accomplishments, and they don’t see themselves at universities learning from top researchers.

The lessons they bring spark the best kind of reaction in science lovers that fill Huddleston’s advanced placement class at Benzie Central, a school of 412 students.

“It’s something that not many high schools kids are going to get to experience,” said Emma Lane, an 11th-grader who hopes to attend college.

Classmate Parker Bentley is considering studying biology after high school. And fellow bio student, Ausable Kreine, wants to go into the medical field.

“I could tell you story after story of kids that they’ve made a huge difference in.”

– Racquel Huddleston, biology teacher, Benzie Central High School

Simmons and Nye have secured $12,000 in National Science Foundation grants for the class. Besides providing and teaching the labs that fall under the science of bioinformatics, the pair have purchased six MacBook Airs for the teens, sponsored science competitions, hosted trips for Benzie students to visit the U-M campus, and brought U-M grad students to Benzie to present their theses, including one as rap.

Students at Benzie Central run experiments on snow outside their school.

Benzie students run experiments on snow—a natural resource Michigan has plenty of!

They also talk about the possibility of paying for college with U-M’s Go Blue Guarantee and discuss career options. The pair have also purchased a spectrophotometer and hotplate, created cross-campus communications for science students and injected many other contributions and activities, reaching more than 600 students in less than five years.

“The Benzie Central faculty, led by Racquel, have been incredibly engaged and supportive throughout this endeavor. I truly believe that, given the chance, the students we work with from Benzie have tremendous potential to contribute to the academic and diversity initiatives at U-M,” Nye said.

“The University of Michigan is a state school,” Simmons said. “We need to do what we can to give back to students in the state.”

Over 600 students have already been helped by the program, which was developed by the University of Michigan.  "I want my kids to feel that they are confident enough and strong enough and academically gifted that they can go do whatever they want to do," says Racquel Huddleston, Benzie Central biology teacher.

“I want my kids to feel that they are confident enough…to do whatever they want to do.”

Thinking of how the collaboration has touched her students brings tears to Huddleston’s eyes.

“I know that Dr. Simmons isn’t the only professor at U-M like that, but we sure are lucky that he cares about Benzie Central and that he sees what we see here—that these are amazing students,” she said. “Taylor’s part of that, you know, and I could tell you story after story of kids that they’ve made a huge difference in.”

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