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Professor devises fun, educational lab activity for children

Pamela A. Marshall
July 16, 2013

The latest ASM K-12 Outreach Activity for students and educators, published by the American Society for Microbiology, is “Which Food Does Yeast Like Best? A Guided Inquiry Lab Using Yeast Fermentation to Engage Young Students in the Scientific Method.” The activity was designed by Pamela A. Marshall, associate professor in Arizona State University’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences.

Marshall’s lab activity introduces young students to the classic student observation activity of yeast generation of gas. In a twist on the classic approach using sugar, Marshall’s activity offers students a range of foods to taste for developing hypotheses and analyses of which foods promote fermentation.

“Which Food Does Yeast Like Best” is the newest addition to the ASM K-12 Outreach Activities, a collection of 25 fun exercises that encourage the teaching of microbiology in the K-12 basic science curriculum. These activities cover topics in health, genetics, agriculture and more. Each exercise is submitted by the community at large and highlights the roles that microorganisms play in everyday life.

Marshall was named the 2012 volunteer of the year at Copperwood Elementary School in the Peoria Unified School District, where she has spent numerous hours working with students in the school’s gifted program.

“I worked mostly with second graders during the past school year, and I saw that for young students there weren’t a lot of ‘experiments’ where they get to change the conditions – in other words, the variables – or do any background research, which is a key part of the scientific method,” Marshall said. “So I designed this one so they could do some research, by tasting the food, before they did the experiment.

“We also did a series of experiments with the mealworm and its behavior where the kids decided what the variables would be,” she said. “That was fun for them as well.”

Marshall earned a doctorate in cell regulation at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. She arrived at ASU’s West campus in 2003. Marshall teaches classes including Fundamentals of Genetics and Genes, Race, Gender & Society for the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, one of three schools in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

Marshall has served as a mentor to dozens of undergraduate New College students, many of whom have gained admission to medical school. She recently was awarded ASU tenure with Exemplar status.

The ASM’s K-12 activity publication is an extremely useful tool for educators, Marshall said, and she was pleased to have her activity selected for inclusion.

“The ASM activity collection is a great resource for K-12 educators and for scientists who are looking for already-tested outreach activities for class or learning environments,” said Barbara May, assistant professor of biology at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University and member of the ASM Committee for K-12 Outreach. “These activities engage our young students in the process and interesting concepts of science. We are excited to add this new activity and anticipate continued growth in the collection.”

All exercises use materials easily found at home or a neighborhood store and can be led by parents, teachers, scout troop leaders, science club members or even students themselves. Every K-12 Outreach Activity is peer reviewed by the ASM Committee for K-12 Outreach for scientific and educational content, pedagogical processes, safety, adherence to the national science standards, and clarity and completeness of instructional materials and assessment plans.

The activity title list and PDFs of the activities themselves are available at