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SKC offers STEM courses for high school students

Students to study viruses and their interaction with bacteria

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POLSON – Salish Kootenai College is now offering coursework to local high school students through a new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Academy. 

Eight students from Ronan, Polson and Two Eagle River high schools will study biology, chemistry and statistics in conjunction with research into viruses and their interaction with bacteria. The first day of the new academy, which is being funded by a five-year grant, was Aug. 30. 

The research into the viruses, which are called PHAGES, or Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science, involves students looking for a virus in the soil and then analyzing its DNA. 

Students will have 10 years of data to use about such viruses that has already been collected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland. 

Libby Rutledge, who has taught at the college for nine years, will teach the research course through the fall, winter and spring quarters. 

She said the viruses are safe to work with and are very important to the earth’s ecology. 

“They infect and kill half the bacteria on the planet daily,” she said. “No two PHAGES are the same.”

She noted that the students will get to name the PHAGES they find, and the names will be used in any scientific research papers about them. 

The students will be doing “authentic science research,” said Andrea Panagakis, program coordinator and biology teacher in the STEM Academy. 

STEM Academy Director Mary Larson, who previously taught at Linderman Elementary, said the academy received grant funding for five years from the National Institute of Health’s Science Education Partnership Award. Stacey Sherwin and Regina Sievert wrote the grant. 

Three other Native American colleges – Aaniiih Nakoda College in Harlem, Montana, Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington, and United Tribes Indian College in Bismarck, North Dakota, are also part of the project, but only involve college students. SKC is the first college to offer coursework in the program to high school students. 

High school juniors and seniors may enroll in the program, and juniors can continue during their senior year and focus on specialized study. 

Larson envisions recruiting more students next spring to fill a total of 20 slots. 

“We’re excited. The students are real pioneers in the research and program,” Panagakis said. 

Students, who have to arrange their own transportation, attend the STEM Academy from 1-4 p.m. weekdays.

For more information, go online at stemacademy.skc.edu.

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