Teaching Science Teachers Science
by William Dube
As I lay dreaming of skiing, I was ripped from my slumber by my Hartford Whalers goal song alarm tone, and my girlfriend shaking me with urgency, “this is the fourth time you’ve snoozed!” … [incoherent grumbling] … “GET UP!”
I realized that it was 2:40am, rolled out of bed, banged my head on the ground as I attempted to rip myself out of my coma. I had 20 minutes to make my journey to McGuckins from Broadway and Baseline. I pulled my clothes on like a drunken baby, grabbed my Cliff bar and the energy drink I had purchased the previous evening, and ran out the door with my hair on fire to start the day.
This was the typical start to many of my days in the summer of 2016. A summer I spent as part of the Safran Lab field crew, managed by Ph.D. student Amanda Hund. The team was comprised of Amanda, another Ph.D. student named Sheela, three other undergraduates, three middle school teachers, and me. In our lab, we study the mechanisms of speciation. To study these questions, we use the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) species complex. This complex interests us because there are six subspecies throughout the world that are diverging into discrete species; further, these species select their mates based on different physical traits, such that the males have measurable difference in their expression of these traits (such as tail length and breast feather color) depending on what subspecies they belong to.
Another attribute that make barn swallows a great study subject is how easily you can find them. Almost anywhere you go that has a man-made structure that is open to the outside is a possible place for barn swallows to live. From barns, to abandoned sheds, to culverts under roadways, barn swallows are easy to find if you look for them.
I arrived at McGuckins at about 2:50am, after driving a bit too fast -- depending on who you ask. As I sat there waiting (the rest of the team was behind that day), I thought about the day ahead. Starting when the rest of the team arrived, I would be working for the rest of the day, likely until 5 or 6pm. This is the life of a field researcher during field season, seven days a week.
As Amanda’s car approached, the muffled sound of BBC radio, via NPR, emanated from within. As her car came to a halt, the door burst open and out she came, Incan hat wearing, travel mug and Goldfish toting, ornithologist extraordinaire. “Hey Will! Ready to catch some birds?”
“Will, how the heck are ya?!”
“Livin’ the dream DT, what’s good with you?!”
“Well, ya know… It’s 3am and I’m about to go climb around in the mud… so pretty good!”
DT was one of the middle school teachers working with us. He was a vivacious, fit middle aged guy, with a passion for van camping. He would generally ride his bike from his home, some 10 miles away, to meet us at McGuckins at 3 in the morning. In addition to all of DT’s eccentricities, he was incredibly intelligent. For example, though he is not a biologist by trade, he decided to create a lesson plan on the differences in incubation behavior between birds along a gradient of parasite load.
After the rest of the team assembled, we headed out for our night of mist netting and banding. This time we were headed to a culvert at Bobolink trailhead on Baseline, close to the intersection with Cherryvale. Off we went to study evolution as it was occurring.
As science progresses further and further, it also seems to become less accessible. As field biologists, we are not just naturalists wandering around in the woods looking at unique systems that interest us. We are also microbiologists, statisticians, and are becoming very well versed in coding (in programs like “R,” etc…). As the literature becomes more and more broad, it also becomes more competitive. We must possess a wider arsenal of skills in order to stay relevant. Many young people may feel disinterested, or even intimidated by the idea of trying to work their way into these fields.
At the same time as science becomes more demanding, the United States is falling behind on science education. Although the United States is generally rated as being pretty close to average in terms of science literacy, there are 20 education systems with higher averages than that of the United States (National Center for Education Statistics). If we want to continue leading the world in science and technology, this must improve.
The quality of STEM education in the United States not only leads to us being behind in terms of general science literacy; I fear it can also lead to a sort of positive feedback loop, in which our populace begins to lose their sense of value for the sciences. If this happens, it is not outside the realm of possibility that science research will lose its public financing. In order to avoid these kinds of problems, it is of critical importance that we as a community work to improve our outreach, particularly to young people, who are the future of science and science funding in the United States.
The need for improvement in science education and outreach is the motivation behind the outreach programs cropping up all over the country. Amanda did a great job summing up how scientific outreach has fallen short in the past, and has the opportunity to improve going forward.
Another issue is that scientists traditionally have no training in how to communicate science to non-scientists, or the media. This plays into the whole idea that we are in some ivory tower that is isolated from the public. I think this has really been an issue with things like climate change and GMOs, they are both science communication failures. … We need to figure out how to get the public invested in science, do a better job of teaching science in schools to educate the general public, and have scientists better communicate what they are doing, why, and what they are finding. (Hund)
Despite these shortcomings, the science community has made and continues to make attempts to improve its outreach initiatives. From older local programs like the Thorne Nature Experience here in Boulder, to newer, more large scale initiatives, such as the National Science Foundation’s Research Opportunity for Teachers (RET) grant.
The RET is an exemplary program that provides funding for K-12 teachers to go into labs or field research environments, and take those experiences to design curriculum for their students. This is the grant that allowed DT and the other teachers to work with us this summer. This is a great opportunity for teachers to update their knowledge of the sciences, and to be able to bring relevant, current information into the classroom. Amanda can’t speak highly enough of the program, “As a scientist, I can go talk to one classroom and reach 25 students, or I can work with teachers who will go on to teach many classes for many years and reach hundreds of students.” (Hund)
Given the goals of increasing science literacy in the United States, this program is invaluable. As Amanda said, this program makes it so that her outreach can reach hundreds of people, rather than just 20-25, an order of magnitude of difference!
As we arrived at Bobolink, we began discussing the logistics of the day. From who would hold the nets, to who would block bicyclists from getting caught in them. Once all of those logistics had been handled, it was time to start the banding day.
With the teachers there, and their enthusiasm to help in any way they could, I elected to take the morning off from chasing and scaring birds; instead, I stood at one of the entrances, holding one side of the mist net. Soon, lead by Amanda, all the other people “flushing” the birds began clapping, shouting, and making strange noises. Almost immediately after they started this, birds started hitting the net, falling into the pockets formed by the slack in the net.
After we had the birds removed from the net and in the bird bags came the “science-y” part. To process each bird was a seven step process in this summer’s protocol: We banded them with a NFWS number band (ID in hand, registered with the government), a set of two color bands (to ID them with binoculars), next we would determine the sex of the bird, measure it’s right wing length, and streamer length, collect feather samples from four patches, take a small blood sample for paternity analysis, and finally get the bird’s mass. This doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but when repeated with dozens of individual birds at a site, it is a lot to deal with logistically. This is where the teachers really gained the most experience and knowledge.
As we collected our measurements and samples, the teachers would help us label and get us what we needed; but, they would also ask questions about what we were doing and why. Because of this, we were able to teach them everything from how to hold a bird so that it won’t get away from you, struggle, or get hurt; to what microsatellites are, and how we can use them to assess paternity.
The teachers took these experiences, decided what they were most interested in, and they each designed lesson plans related to those topics. Using this method, they were able to create engaging, real-life-inspired curriculum to elucidate middle school biology concepts.
This level of engagement is invaluable to creating truly effective lesson plans. I contend that, through these experiences, the teachers gained not only an understanding of what we were doing; but also a level of excitement and engagement with the ideas that they could not have achieved through just reading about how field biology studies work. This is something that can truly set science education apart in the United States. By providing a window to cutting edge research for those who are responsible for educating the next generation of scientists, we can push ourselves into higher levels of scientific literacy.
A couple things Amanda mentioned that could improve this outreach initiative (and science outreach initiatives in general) were both related to expanding the scope of them. One huge short coming Amanda cited was the lack of these outreach programs in urban areas, and other underserved populations (Hund). Most of the people who are exposed to this type of outreach are in strong schools already. The second thing she mentioned was that the RET should require researchers to be more engaged in the teaching piece that comes after the summer, which is not currently a requirement (Hund). If researchers were required to be involved in some way with the actual teaching process, this could drive student engagement and learning even higher.
Overall, I left my summer experience with the teachers feeling extremely optimistic about the future of science outreach and education in the United States. That said, given recent shifts in the political climate, and the open distrust for the scientific community, we must be sure to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. We must make sure that education and science remain priorities, or else we will surely fall behind. We are already on the right track, and if scientists and educators continue to receive the support of the public and programs like the NSF RET, we will have the opportunity to build one of the strongest science education systems in the world.
Hund, Amanda. Interview. William Dube. October 2016.
National Center for Education Statistics. Fast Facts. n.d. <https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=1>.