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Contagious Enthusiasm: Teacher brings excitement to high-tech classes

DAILY LEADER / RHONDA DUNAWAY / Krista Davis (from left) and Abby Burke get hands-on training with lab equipment from Enterprise Attendance Center science teacher Kathy McKone during lab work for their Biomedical Technology course Monday. The students were working on a project where they will extract their own DNA to study.

DAILY LEADER / RHONDA DUNAWAY / Krista Davis (from left) and Abby Burke get hands-on training with lab equipment from Enterprise Attendance Center science teacher Kathy McKone during lab work for their Biomedical Technology course Monday. The students were working on a project where they will extract their own DNA to study.

Start talking about fleas, ants, bed-bugs, bacteria and extracting genetically mutated DNA from a Dorito chip with Enterprise science teacher Kathy McKone, and you’ll see a teacher whose enthusiasm and excitement glows in her expression like a kid at Christmas time.

McKone is known for her contagious fervor for science – just ask her about the Dorito chip, and you’ll learn what genetic mutations are used for in corn products and possibly reconsider some food choices.

McKone received national recognition again this year for her dedication to providing a window to the world of science at her school and beyond. She is the recipient of the 2013 Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for Mississippi from the National Association of Biology Teachers. Each year, the NABT recognizes a biology educator for grades seven through 12 from each state.

Winning awards is nothing new for McKone though. Last year, she received the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science. The presidential award is given to teachers “who develop and implement a high-quality instructional program that is informed by content knowledge and enhances student learning,” according to the awards website.

McKone is a graduate of Bogue Chitto High School. She went on to receive a bachelor of science and master’s degree in science education from the university of Mississippi.

But McKone said she always wanted to be right here at home. Along with her love of learning and knowledge, her love for her community is part of what motivates her to stay in the know and on the cutting edge of science.

Most of her 28 years in teaching have been at Enterprise Attendance Center where she currently teaches physical science, chemistry, genetics/organic chemistry and biomedical research.

Her lab has modern equipment she received from Princeton University, including micropipettes, vortexers and thermal cylers – some of the tools students use in studying DNA and microbiology.

The cutting-edge classroom research stems back to about 10 years ago, when McKone said she had a realization – she didn’t know the latest in science and technology.

“While I was busy teaching in the classroom, what was new in science was constantly changing. The concepts and technologies related to DNA were always being updated in our state biology curriculum and textbooks – I was being left behind. And I knew my students were, too.”

She said she felt a sudden conviction to make a change in herself and find the knowledge and resources needed to make her science classrooms as good as any that can be found in the U.S.

“I knew that if I wanted to change things for the better in my classroom, I first had to change things in myself,” McKone said. “That’s when I started looking for learning opportunities. I applied and was accepted to attend workshops sponsored by universities with proven track records.”

For several summers, she traveled out of state to participate in biotechnology laboratory investigations at Cornell, Harvard and Princeton Universities, as well as the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.

“I wanted to be able to give my students the experiences that students in states like New York and Massachusetts had,” McKone said. “In places like this education is priority, and most high schools have interaction and working relationships with major universities, access to research and the tools needed to do the research – I wanted to bring that level of learning back here to Lincoln County.”

This endeavor, this diligence and persistence is what Superintendent Terry Brister cited in a May 20, 2008, article in The Daily Leader as the reason he chose McKone for the 2007-08 Lincoln County School District Teacher of Year.

That year McKone’s efforts brought the first biotechnology research lab in any high school in Mississippi to Bogue Chitto Attendance Center. To this day, Bogue Chitto and Enterprise high school students have access to the only biotechnology labs in any Mississippi high school.

McKone said she hopes that will change. She has a vision of Southwest Mississippi being a new hub for biomedical research and industry. She said she wants her students to think beyond the borders of rural Lincoln County and know that knowledge and advancement can be had right here at home.

“Princeton has been the main university that has given us the resources we need for our lab,” she said. “If you don’t have the materials needed for projects – like extracting DNA – the knowledge doesn’t trickle down into the classroom.” McKone said the modern equipment Princeton has given for her science lab in the high school is likely valued at $20,000.

McKone is sharing her professional development with other teachers, too. In 2009 she became the lead teacher for Mississippi’s only Princeton Satellite Learning Center.

“Not everyone can afford to travel to these workshops, so I decided to bring the workshops to them,” she said. McKone has a Princeton Satellite Molecular Biology Learning Center workshop coming up at the end of this month. She’s held workshops at various places like UMC, Itawamba Community College, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Albitech Inc. and at Enterprise.

She says the workshops, which involve a total of 10 hours of intensive work and study, are always held over the weekend for the convenience of teachers. She says she typically conducts two a year, but she hopes that will increase. She has already trained more than 70 teachers in biotechnology.

She has started research projects with students, including the Wolbachia Rodeo. It is the first biotechnology competition in the state involving high school students. They extracted bacteria known as Wolbachia from three insects – fire ant, flea and mosquito – to determine the bacteria’s relationship to its host as parasitic or symbiotic.

The rodeo was held in February at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and involved six high schools. All of the teachers involved had been trained during Princeton satellite workshops.

McKone’s principal at Enterprise, Shannon Eubanks, said one of the most important things that McKone brings to the classroom is a sense of prestige that goes beyond what most perceive rural Mississippi to be.

“She has always been the kind of teacher who helps students look outside of Enterprise and realize they can be what they dream of being,” Eubanks said.

“Yes, they can be research scientists; yes, they can be forensic scientists, or neurosurgeons – she brings that kind of prestige to Enterprise,” Eubanks said.