Rebecca Aicher, an ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral candidate, is getting good at answering questions from curious high school students.

Among the many questions from kids at Santa Ana and Middle College high schools last year: Why is biology so important? Why do we have to learn it? How did you get your start as a scientist?

“The students are extremely enthusiastic. They are really interested in learning about biology and why I am a scientist,” said Aicher, a participant in the UCI GK-12 program.

Aicher was one of eight UCI students in the 2007-08 program, its inaugural year. Supplied with a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the program aims to teach the next generation of biologists how to explain their work and its importance to the general public. At the same time, students in grades 7-12 get to learn from a real scientist, and their teachers learn new material and classroom techniques.

The program is run by Luis Mota-Bravo, director of Biological Sciences Outreach, Research Training and Minority Science Programs, and Michael Mulligan, associate dean of graduate studies in the School of Biological Sciences.

“For many of our students, this is their first experience communicating their science to the general public, as opposed to the scientific audience they are used to at UCI,” Mota-Bravo said. “As these young graduate students mature as scientists, they will become much better communicators, which will help to increase public knowledge and support of science.”

Aicher, a plant community ecologist, works in local grasslands to understand how native and exotic species coexist. She researches ways to reduce exotic and invasive plant species while bolstering growth of species native to the Southern California habitat.

In the high school classrooms, she used hands-on activities to teach the kids about local ecosystems. In one lesson, students mixed food scraps, soil and worms in a bin to demonstrate how nutrient-rich soil is produced. That day, UCI Chancellor Michael Drake and Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido visited the classroom and helped with the activity.

“Chancellor Drake was elbow-deep in the worm bin with the students,” Aicher said.

Aicher’s interest in biology was piqued as a child because she loved nature and being outside. Although originally she wanted to become a wildlife biologist, her interest switched to plant ecology.

“Plant ecology and restoration is the perfect way for me to work with local communities and get people interested in their native ecosystem,” said Aicher, a Pennsylvania native who did undergraduate work in Washington, D.C. and came to UCI in 2004.

Next school year, Aicher will head back to the high school classroom to enlighten a new group of young minds to the world of science.

Her advice to incoming GK-12 resident scientists: “Remember to keep your enthusiasm for science. Tell them why you love biology, and they will be excited as well.”

GK-12 graduate students who participated in 2007-08 were:

  • John Ycaza, Costa Mesa High School, Newport-Mesa Unified School District
  • Rosemary Byrne, Costa Mesa High School, Newport-Mesa Unified School District
  • Mabel Cortes-Wanstreet, Horace Ensign Intermediate School, Newport-Mesa Unified School District
  • Lamar Blackwell, Cesar E. Chavez High School, Santa Ana Unified School District
  • Kandarp Shah, Douglas MacArthur Fundamental Intermediate School, Santa Ana Unified School District
  • Maribel Arias, Gonzalo Felicitas Mendez Fundamental Intermediate School, Santa Ana Unified School District
  • Rebecca Aicher, Middle College High School, Santa Ana Unified School District and Santa Ana High School, Santa Ana Unified School District
  • Heather McGray, Segerstrom Fundamental High School, Santa Ana Unified School District