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ASU contest gives kids chance to interview scientists

April 29, 2008

Arizona State University doctoral student Rebecca Clark bends the neck of a flexible lamp to illuminate a wide plain of dirt captured between two panes of glass, while three. Phoenix elementary students peer closely to see that the soil has been organized into a branching array of chambers by some very busy leaf-cutter ants.

Around the four, on every available surface are trays, experimental set ups, containing colonies of leaf-cutters and sap-sippers; big-headed ants and night ants. Of special interest: predatory, jumping ants from India.

“Excellent,” Taylor bursts out, then the barrage of questions from the trio of young students start: “Are all ants female? Is that a garbage dump? What is that fuzzy stuff?"

"This is so much fun,” Clark beams. “I love the questions.”

The inquisitors are third-graders Taylor Cheatham and Itzany Mendez, and fifth-grader Brian Varela from Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School. That these students are both curious and articulate comes as no surprise to the accompanying adults, their parents, teachers, ASU graduate students, and the host of this excursion, Charles Kazilek. The three are the winners of the first bi-annual “Ask a Biologist” podcast contest, and they were chosen based on their vocal skills, curiosity, and creativity by the panel of judges.

Questions are in fact the lifeblood of Kazilek. As director of technology integration and outreach in the ASU School of Life Sciences, he created “Ask-a-Biologist,” the innovative K-12 children’s science education Web site specifically to provide answers to the puzzled, perplexed and just plain curious. A portal for fun and facts, the site receives more than 200 questions a month and 500,000 unique visitors a year. As its host Dr. Biology, a Web persona created by Kazilek, has interpreted more than 20,000 queries in the last 10 years – and has only been stumped a dozen times.

“I like to say that Dr. Biology is the smartest person I know,” Kazilek quips.

Dr. Biology’s formidable intellect is backed by a pool of more than “100 mostly willing volunteers” from ASU’s School of Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. With more than 350 faculty and graduate students to call upon, there is no lack of experts to help K-12 students fathom the most ancient and most technologically sophisticated changes in the world.

The Web site took a technological and creative leap of its own in 2007, launching a podcast program, and creating a home base – Grass Roots Studio – where Kazilek and his colleagues record. Twice monthly, children, adults, home-schoolers and teachers can download the sounds of the Tibetan plateau or drop into a conversation with a Pulitzer Prize winning ant adventurer.

However, according to Kazilek, one voice was missing, “the children themselves.” Hence, the podcast contest and search for child co-hosts was born.

“This is such a wonderful opportunity and a day of learning and lessons for us all,” says Helen Rentz, a third-grade teacher at Paul Laurence Dunbar Elementary School. “The children have never had anything like this available to them before. They were very motivated to research, to interview, to podcast, and it’s the first trip for them and their families to ASU.”

“This has definitely made an impact,” adds Joan Howell, teacher with the Accelerated Learning Procedures (ALPS) program in Phoenix in which all three students participate.

To become a podcast co- host, each student did a podcast interview and submitted a CD, much like a podcast version of “American Idol,” with support from their teachers. As winners, and as Kazilek’s co-hosts, they recorded a professional quality podcast that is broadcasted internationally. In addition to meeting and interviewing scientists, the children (and their teachers) get a day off from school and the chance to pick up some hands-on science techniques. They also receive one of the tools of their trade – an Apple Ipod Shuffle.

Cheatham, Mendez, and Varela are the first three of 12 students who will be featured on Ask-a-Biologist each year. “When do we get to see the feathers?” Brian asks.

One of the scientist’s to be interviewed is Kevin McGraw, a researcher who studies bird feather coloration and behavior. He has feathers to hand out and questions of his own for the children: “What’s the world’s longest feather?” (Five feet, seven inches belonging to a crested Argus pheasant). “Who has the most feathers?”

Varela flips over a Golden pheasant skin and passes it to Taylor whose eyes open wide. McGraw knows what make children tick. He talks about genetically engineered, naked chickens used to simulate dinosaurs running for the movie Jurassic Park and reveals that swans have more then 25,000 feathers, while hummingbirds only about 940. Varela picks up the long plume of a macaw, blue on one side, yellow on another, a question forming on his lips, one of many that will frame his interview later with McGraw.

“Can I have a bird?” Cheatham asks her dad as the children leave the McGraw’s laboratory to prepare to do their interviews. “Yes,” he replies, watching her leave. “But I’d really like to have an ant farm.”

To hear Taylor’s interview, go to the Ask-a-Biologist Web site: (volume 33).
Details and deadlines for future contests can be found at

Ask a Biologist is recognized by the Arizona Technology in Education Alliance and the Center for Digital Education. It was also the winner of the 2003 ASU President’s Award for Innovation.