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NC students’ bison study is a lesson in much more

Fri., March 4, 2011

Kelly Ann Cameron, right, and Elizabeth Rose taste bison burgers during a dinner Thursday at North Central High School. (Jesse Tinsley)
Kelly Ann Cameron, right, and Elizabeth Rose taste bison burgers during a dinner Thursday at North Central High School. (Jesse Tinsley)

Bison burgers were the entrée Thursday night at North Central High School. But the side dishes were all over the menu: history, geography, archaeology, sociology, climatology, genomics …

Two teachers and five students have teamed up at NC in a project that’s remarkable in so many ways it’s hard to pin them all down. Suffice it to say that the project – built around studying the Northern Plains bison from every angle, now including the culinary – is a great illustration that if you want to learn about a lot of things, you should learn a lot about one thing.

“You really end up talking about a span of time from the Little Ice Age all the way up to the present,” said Steve Fisk, an NC assistant principal who helped develop the course with advanced genomics instructor Randy James. “It teaches the kids to take some control and responsibility for their learning. … This isn’t something we hand to them and tell them what to think.”

The burgers – and kielbasas and even the stray veggie burger – were the group’s way of celebrating a milestone, thanking the people involved, and casting an eye toward the future. The milestone was the students’ successful sequencing of 9,100-year-old bison DNA, a scientific project of grad-student complexity.

“It’s a pretty unique project,” said Marina DeFrates, a 16-year-old junior. “It feels like we’re actually doing something that matters.”

Their project has also become the nexus of a web of local relationships – connecting them to a retired Deer Park doctor with a wealth of bison experience and an old 1874 Sharps rifle, a Spokane geologist who handed over a box of bison bones he found decades ago in Montana, a Cheney family that found buffalo bones in Canada, a Montana scientist who’s studied the creatures for a lifetime …

“It is absolutely phenomenal to me that a high school class is accomplishing what they’re accomplishing,” said Otto Schumacher, a geologist and mining engineer who found bones in the Missouri River Breaks in the 1970s. “It’s the greatest thing. I’m happy to be a part of it in any way.”

Three of the students – DeFrates, Lifen Guo, 18, and Forrest Ireland, 17 – have been working for months on the genomics piece of the project. You could not overstate how rare this is – the difficulty of the science and the fact that they’ve succeeded in sequencing the genetic material of a 9,100-year-old bison is the stuff of graduate-level research. It’s one of several genomics projects under way at North Central, under James’ guidance.

“It’s as unusual as it seems,” said James Ashlock, an advanced biology instructor. “They’re doing more than I did for my master’s. … All of them are doing master’s-level research.”

Elizabeth Rose and Kelly Ann Cameron, meanwhile, have studied the history of the species, focusing in particular on the slaughter of the creatures during the late 1800s – a combination of casual carnage for fur and a government effort to eradicate buffalo as a way to strike at the self-sufficiency of tribes. The Plains buffalo went from a population of tens of millions into the hundreds in a matter of years.

“When they were hunting the buffalo, they thought it was an inexhaustible resource,” Rose said. “It was never going to go away. In a very short time, they were almost gone. … It was a gigantic waste.”

The project has encompassed all manner of other bison-alia. When The Spokesman-Review first published a story about the project in October, people from around the area contacted Fisk to offer their own buffalo stuff – hides and bones and a coat and expertise.

The idea grew out of Fisk’s Montana background as a hunter, historian and teacher, and James’ genomics program at North Central. Last summer, the group took a trip to Montana, went to a buffalo jump site and dug for bones. They also began forming the basis of the teamwork needed for the project to succeed.

The students spend one class period a day on the work, but have also put in hundreds of hours outside class. They will make a presentation on their findings at a conference at Whitworth University this spring and at a national bison organization in Montana this summer. They talk casually about the possibility of publishing research.

It’s tempting to gush about all these students have achieved, and all they seem destined to achieve. Because they have, and they will.

But Fisk likes to talk about their failure. How it took them six months to actually get the DNA sequence to work – scores of failed attempts to get through the complicated process that stands between a bit of ancient bone dust and actual genetic data. How great it was that they had to try and try again.

“I want the kids to be problem-solvers in the world – we need kids who can problem-solve,” he said. “The kids who have been trying to sequence this have been experiencing failure for six months. Six months! How many people don’t persevere after just one try?”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@

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