“Put on your best scientific hats,” Suzy Dunnum urged the 11 students in her seventh-grade gifted life science class at Jefferson Middle School. “Everybody get a pair of rubber gloves, too.”
The students took their seats, donned their gloves, bent their heads and went to work. And they were meticulous.
The eight girls and three boys were busy combing the fur on long-dead chipmunks, looking for tiny parasites. Any debris from the animals’ pelts would fall onto a white sheet of paper, and anything looking remotely like a louse would be carefully scrutinized under a microscope. If it was a louse, it would be identified and the host chipmunk would be categorized by species, where the mammal had been collected and when. Like their chipmunk hosts, the lice were dead.
The chipmunks came from all over the western United States. The oldest was collected way back in 1908. The kids were impressed.
They were helping parasitologist Kayce Bell, a doctoral student with the University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology, with her Ph.D. research project. They were all on a first-name basis.
“Kayce, I found a louse!” shouted one girl, excitedly.
“I’d love to look at it,” Bell responded, making her way over to the girl’s desk.
As the kids combed and observed and recorded their findings, Dunnum and Bell circulated through the laboratory, observing their work and occasionally reminding them “don’t blow on your paper.”
Dunnum had contacted the Journal to talk about what she called “the unique relationship that is developing between our program and UNM’s Museum of Southwestern Biology.” This month, her husband, Jon Dunnum, a scientist at the museum, is bringing in a variety of species to demonstrate different aspects of evolution to the students, and in the spring, another scientist, Ernie Valdez, will share his expert knowledge of Southwestern bats with the kids.
“Most students hold the misconception that all scientists are old, white, male, wear a lab coat and have crazy hair (think Einstein),” Suzy Dunnum said. “Even though there are a few of those out there, I feel that it is very important for the students to be exposed to ‘real life’ scientists ….”
Speaking of Einstein, his crazy hair and likeness gazed out over the class from posters on the wall, as did a “diversity of life” map. Against one wall, groups of seedlings looked healthy under artificial lights. A poster, filled with camouflaged wildlife, advised: “When you’re not looking … a lot can be happening along a Southwestern stream.”
Meanwhile, scientific words like “endoparasites” and “ectoparasites,” rolled easily off the kids’ lips, even though one boy had trouble grasping that “lice” is the plural form of “louse.” At one point, someone in the class wondered aloud what would happen if a chipmunk louse happened to still be alive and by chance made its way onto one of the students.
Not to worry, said student Ruth Mueller, who was sitting nearby. “They couldn’t get us anyway,” she said, knowingly. “We’re the wrong species.”
A parent of a child in Dunnum’s first-period science class was still present when the second-period class met. Heather Pratt-Chavez quietly looked over the classroom and the children working so diligently. Later, she spoke approvingly about the way Dunnum teaches and the great support from UNM scientists and the Museum of Southwestern Biology.
“I love this class,” Pratt-Chavez said. “It’s such a contrast with all the negative things you hear about teachers and our schools. I love this class.”