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Willmar, Minn., students become scientists for a day

Lorena Lindemann, right, helps Jesus Naverez, 12, as he uses a cordless pipette Monday to transfer agar to a petri dish as part of an experiment conducted by Willmar Middle School students in the mobile lab of the St. Cloud State University Science Express. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller(1 / 3
Kody Watson, 13, front, Jessica Skindelien, 12, and Brody Linde, 12, write their names and the codes for various substances to be tested on petri dishes. The work on Monday was part of an experiment conducted by Willmar Middle School students in the mobile lab of the St. Cloud State University Science Express. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)2 / 3
Grace Culshaw, 13, right, places one of the substances to be tested in a petri dish as Alexis Engelkes, 12, watches Monday in the mobile lab of the St. Cloud State University Science Express. The lab is at Willmar Middle School this week. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)3 / 3

WILLMAR -- Students at Willmar Middle School have the chance to become scientists, at least for a little while.

The St. Cloud State University Science Express mobile science laboratory will be at the school through Thursday. It's a semi-trailer, and with pop-out sides, it forms a five-station science lab and a conference room.

On Monday, seventh-graders got the chance to test whether some food products might contain soy products in a lesson on antigens and antibodies.

"The purpose of the (lab) is to provide an experience we really can't in a classroom and to pique their interest in science," said science teacher Randy Frederickson. "We have them become scientists for an hour."

Susan Bialka, lead science express instructor and a member of the St. Cloud State faculty, asked the students if any of them had been sick. Of course, all their hands went up.

"Then why are you not all dead?" she asked.

"Our immune systems," a boy said. His answer led Bialka into a discussion about immune systems. She told them that antibodies are developed as the body's reaction to antigens, an unfamiliar substance in the body.

Sometimes a person's system will overreact to an antigen and will cause an allergic reaction, she said.

Bialka laid out a scenario of a woman who is allergic to soy and carries an epinephrine auto-injector with her to ward off a serious reaction.

When she goes to a restaurant named Speedy's, a waiter tells her that the restaurant's burgers are 100 percent beef. Relying on that information, she orders a burger and fries. She soon has a reaction, injects the epinephrine and has her friends take her to a clinic.

Luckily, the friends think to take the food along, Bialka said.

The students, acting as scientists, needed to find out if any of the food contained soy products.

With the supervision of Bialka and St. Cloud undergraduate student Lorena Lindemann, students used a cordless pipette to place agar in petri dishes and then used pipettes to place several substances into the agar. They placed soy antibodies in the middle. In five spots around the edges of each dish they placed soy, saline, 100 percent beef, the burger the woman ate and the French fries.

The soy antibodies, beef and saline would be the controls in the experiment, she said.

In their classes today, the students will be able to see how their experiments turned out. A white line between the antibodies in the middle of the dish and one of the substances around the side of the dish would indicate the presence of soy.

"If you do not have controls in your experiment, your experiment is not valid," Bialka said.

They would not expect reactions between the soy antibodies and the saline or the 100 percent beef, but they would with the soy. The question will be whether they see a reaction with the restaurant burger and fries.

If there's a white line in the agar between the burger and the antibodies, "There's soy in that speedy burger and she can sue ... maybe," Bialka said.

As his students worked with Bialka and Lindemann, their teacher Randy Frederickson said science teachers are grateful for the lab and its equipment. Schools can provide basics like test tube holders and petri dishes, but there's no room in a middle school budget for pipettes worth $500. "That's the whole reason for this lab," he said.

The lab is supported by a foundation based at St. Cloud State, and its funding comes from a number of sources, Bialka said. In addition to St. Cloud State and its College of Science and Engineering, funding comes from grants, private donors and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System.

The Science Express travels to rural schools, and it is free to the school districts. It goes only to schools where at least one science teacher has attended a two-day summer workshop. Frederickson has attended the summer workshop.

Frederickson said teachers are not paid for the two-day workshops they attend in the summer, and they don't earn credits for them, either.

The teachers involved do it for their students and to get the Science Express at their schools.

More information is available on the lab's website at and on its Facebook page:

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340