Ecology Project International immerses students in research with conservation scientists, giving them ample opportunity to experience the scientific process and the satisfaction of collecting data to inform real wildlife management policies. It is one of the easiest ways to get your students involved in real science. But taking a research trip is not always feasible for schools, and keeping science alive for your classroom year-round is important.
The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) have directed focus on student understanding of scientific concepts through actual practices of science and engineering. Finding and working with a local scientist is one way to accomplish this, but we know that can seem daunting. And yet partnering with a local scientist can offer so much beyond standards: hands-on learning, deeper understanding of how science is applied in the world, real-life role models, career path opportunities, and even possible summer job opportunities for your students.
Megan Edgar, chair of the Maui Nui Resource Council, former STEM teacher at a project-based high school in Hawaii, and our EPI Hawaii Program Coordinator has shared notes from her insightful Green Teacher webinar, “Secrets to Snagging a Scientist for your Classroom.” Here is a summary of what she suggests, along with some extra tips from other EPI staff.
Start by asking yourself: What do I want my students to gain?
Edgar says that she got some of the best curriculum development advice from a project-based learning workshop with The Buck Institute for Education—to “begin with the end in mind.” In other words, think carefully about what knowledge, skills, and/or tools do you want them to learn and apply before first reaching out.
What type of experience do you want?
There are many ways a scientist partner can add value to your class—data collection is only one. Scientists can also offer “a hook” to get students excited about a new topic, or bring in technology or tools that your school might not have access to. Scientists can also provide real-world application examples for scientific principles. Which of these fits best with your subject, class, and school? The one thing Megan advises is to work with your partner to develop hands-on activities for any of these types of involvement, even if it may not be data collection.
She divides these experiences into three categories: service work, conservation projects, and data collection. Many times activities may fulfill multiple categories. Which would your class be most interested in, and which can a partner organization provide?
Find a scientist
Edgar suggests sending a note home with parents the first day of school, listing the subjects that will be covered in class, and asking if parents know any people who have connections or careers related to those subjects. Studying forest ecology doesn’t mean you have to have a dendochronologist; you could also ask a logger to discuss how decisions on sustainable timber harvesting are made, and plan an activity around that.
Science centers, your local college or university, National Parks, the United States Forest Service, local nature preserves, and farms can all be places to start too. The National Center for Science Education provides a Scientist in the Classroom “dating” service, linking teachers and scientists through a short application. The National Science Teacher’s Association (NSTA) offers Connected Science Learning, a blog “linking in-school and out-of-school STEM learning.” And Skype A Scientist, although it does not offer hands-on activities, can offer Q&A sessions for your classrooms with a real live scientist, which can still provide your classroom benefits, particularly breaking down stereotypes of who and who isn’t a scientist.
New coalitions of under-represented scientists seeking to increase their visibility and share their work with the public are forming every day, such as 500womenscientists, and could potentially become resources for classrooms as well. Many scientists also have Twitter accounts, and you may be able to search for subject-related hashtags, and reach out to them on that platform.
Start calling and emailing!
Edgar recommends spending the first interaction, “…chatting casually about your interests and asking questions about the [scientist’s] work. You want to develop a bit of a friendly relationship before you bombard them with a million questions.” You should also, she says, keep an open mind about potential projects while you’re chatting.
After that first interaction, she suggests asking these three questions:
Is there an established education or research coordinator? (It’s important that you speak with whomever you will be working with directly.)
Do they have an established citizen science program?
Do they offer classroom visits, field experiences, or both?
Logistics and safety
And if you make a scientist connection? The next questions should be about logistics, including safety. Edgar recommends you visit the site yourself before you bring your class. She also says, “Work with your scientific partner to make sure the activities the students will do are really hands-on, align with your curricular goals, and are unique.” Be experimental and try a place out—you can always provide (grateful) feedback to your scientist or partner organization before another visit.
Provide time for reflection
Maximize learning! Provide time after your field trip or meeting for students to reflect upon the value of the experience and how it connects to other subjects, principles, and even their own personal life.
Start small, but be on the lookout for long-term projects
Edgar says that most first experiences with scientific partners, “…will be single events that add authenticity and engagement to the work you are already doing in the classroom. Every time you bring in a guest speaker or take your kids in the field you will learn more and more about what works and what does not.”
Nurturing and developing these partner relationships slowly can eventually lead to a long-term project partnership. Moving from a single visit one year, to a “hook” and a “culmination” visit the next year, and so on, can eventually lead to a long-term partnership. And, Edgar encourages, a long-term partnership can allow mentor relationships to build, for more complex data analysis, and older students to have the opportunity to become peer leaders to younger students.
Edgar acknowledges that schedules, administrative logistics, and funding can be daunting. First, check with your administrators about any nonprofit affiliations your school might have to help with fundraising. Local government and nonprofit organizations, like state parks or nature centers, will usually have an education budget that isn’t always easy for them to spend. If you speak with nonprofit organizations, Edgar suggests asking them if they “have any grant deliverables that require outreach or education activities. Your students may be the group they are looking for to meet those requirements.”
So what if that doesn’t work? Consider approaching local businesses to sponsor your trips. Write up what you want to do with your students and your scientific partner, and if you have pictures of your students working on similar projects, include them! You could ask local businesses for money or equipment—sometimes it can be easier for a business to donate materials than cash. Think about how you might be able to write a blog or include their name in a newsletter if they fund you. Lastly, look for family foundations or outdoor recreation companies that may give grants to schools looking to “inspire students to care about the natural world.” And that’s what it’s all about, right?
Ecology Project International wishes to thank Megan Edgar for her contributions to this post. Do you have suggestions for resources to help teachers get students field science experiences? Please share in the comments, or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.