William Penn students catch, test chickens for harmful bacteria, diseases

Karissa Matheson, a sr. at William Penn High School, created a way to collect, grow and learn about bacteria last year by collecting samples from chickens at the school. Her discovery is now used to teach students in microbiology. Jennifer Corbett/The News Journal

Author: Jessica Bies, The News Journal

Margaret Adenusi focused her gaze on the chicken’s feathery, feces-smeared derrière and tightened her grip on the long-handled cotton swab in her right hand. 

She took a deep breath, preparing herself for what she had to do next. 

This is not what the 17-year-old thought she’d be doing when she signed up for the Allied Health program at William Penn High School. 

“No,” she said, shaking her head. 

Regardless, Adensusi was about to take a sample from the chicken’s cloaca, the single posterior opening for a bird’s digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts, used to both expel feces and lay eggs. 

“It’s not something you get to do every day,” student Lizzy Simmons said, wrinkling her nose slightly but smiling. “I was kind of excited when I heard we were going to do it.” 

The class planned on taking bacteria found on the chickens’ rear ends and growing it in the lab. Once the bacteria multiply, the students will be able to observe them under a microscope and identify them.  

Allied Health teacher Jordan Hudson expected to see species like salmonella and E. coli, which can cause zoonotic diseases. The term refers to infections and illnesses that can be transferred between animals and humans. 

Every year, tens of thousands of Americans get sick from such diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People may come into contact with animals carrying harmful bacteria at county fairs, farms or petting zoos, but animals are also a major source of food and provide meat, dairy and eggs. 

In September, a Sussex County girl got swine flu after petting a pig at a Maryland county fair. 

Her students seemed to get the message. They donned thick, rubber boots and waded into the school’s onsite chicken pen to catch their test subjects, before gingerly collecting their samples. 

Lauren Sleitweiler, 17, was one of several students to actually handle the chickens and said her test subject kept flapping its wings. 

“When I signed up for lab, like, you never think you’re going to be out on a farm looking at chickens,” she said. “But it was really fun and it was a great experience and helped me further my knowledge on microbiology.”  

The lab itself was inspired by Karissa Matheson, a senior, who took similar samples for an end-of-year project last spring. As part of the school’s FFA team, she won honors at both the state fair and National FFA Agriscience Fair. 

“I wanted to do a cross-curricular thing,” she said. “My teacher thought since it was a relatively easy project and was really-hands on … that she would just make it into an actual class.” 

Hudson said in addition to learning about microbiology, her class will prepare detailed lab reports for the school’s agriscience students. 

If it turns out the chickens have any rare bacteria or diseases, they’ll be treated appropriately, helping secure the health and future of the whole flock. 

That’s just one example of the real-life applications sampling chickens has, Hudson said. The lab also provides hands-on experience to health students interested in becoming veterinarians. 

“We do have students that have a foot in both worlds,” she said. 

Contact Jessica Bies at (302) 324-2881 or jbies@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicajbies.

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