Research program introduces science teachers to new technologies and fosters collaboration
PLYMOUTH — With every buzz of a cell phone, technology can be a leading culprit in distracting a student. But that same technology can encourage a student to question an idea, type a few key strokes, and retrieve information all within a matter of seconds. The challenge for teachers is not only how to keep pace with such technology, but how to use it as a key to unlock a student’s inquisitive side.
“Teachers have to bring to the table enthusiasm and curiosity because they are faced with curious people on a daily basis,” says Mark Green, assistant professor of hydrology at Plymouth State University in Plymouth.
To help satisfy that curiosity, Green and several other university professors throughout New Hampshire each teamed up with five science educators as part of the Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) program. The summer of 2014 was the second year for this six- to eight-week project, which is part of the NH Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, funded by the National Science Foundation.
“RET gives teachers experience into how scientific research is conducted and where knowledge comes from. Scientific knowledge doesn’t come from a book; someone has to get it into the book first,” says Stephen Hale, Research Associate at University of New Hampshire and Outreach Director for NH EPSCoR. “Knowledge comes from this scientific practice of collaboration, critical thinking, trial and error, frustration—all of the things that go into research. And we bring teachers onto college campuses to experience that.”
Rebecca Steeves was one of those teachers who immersed herself in the scientific process by collaborating with Green, who served as her RET mentor
The pairing was a good fit, as the two had already worked together the previous year on a water quality monitoring program LoVoTECS through NH EPSCoR. She is one of approximately 35 “citizen scientists” who continue to oversee 108 sensors in various rivers and streams throughout the state. As part of this volunteer work, Steeves in 2013 had set up three water quality sensors in the Pemigewassett (Pemi) River, with one sensor located within walking distance from her school.
“Students could walk to the site with me and see me get into the river and actually do a reading,” says Steeves, a middle school science teacher at Lin-Wood Public School in Lincoln. “It was cool for the students to see their teacher participating in science and how things are happening in their backyard.”
But the readings Steeves was gathering on the Pemi didn’t come from those old-school monitoring kits that she and most science teachers used when they got their teaching degrees. Today’s high-tech sensors automatically measure water temperature, conductivity, and water height—every five minutes.
“Science has changed a lot in a short time, especially with such sensors and how they create huge data sets. Programs such as Excel are no longer sufficient in handling that much data. You need to write code and know how to work with it,” says Green. “In my lab, there is a strong computer science component to the research. A lot of teachers don’t have that background in computer science because that wasn’t the nature of the field at that time.”
Through the RET program, Steeves was able to go beyond just getting her boots wet. She worked with Green to understand the technology, investigate the data, and start making hypotheses and drawing conclusions. When she went back to the classroom, she could pass down the knowledge of how technology enabled her to see how those water measurements in their “backyard” could fit into a larger picture.
“I’d heard about coding in the education world and could see how that skill was definitely coming down the line and into the classroom. There are coding workshops and conferences that teachers can attend, but that can be daunting. Participating in RET was a more natural way for me to learn about coding and other technologies,” says Steeves.
Running computer code, operating a Scanning Electron Microscope, and calibrating sensitive instruments were just a few of the many new skills that RET participants acquired. This hands-on experience showed the teachers how technology is growing by leaps and bounds and is shaping the global marketplace.
“You can have a student who wants to work in finance or another industry; but whether a student in her class wants to work with water or not, Rebecca’s experience can expose her students to coding and show them that the coding knowledge is transferable [to other careers],” explains Green.
Along with the equipment, it is the research culture itself that RET works to convey to New Hampshire teachers and ultimately to their students.
“We keep in mind that most teachers have Bachelor’s degrees in science disciplines and they might have done three hours of lab work a week during a college semester, but that isn’t doing research,” says Hale. “The teachers in RET learn science practice—how science is done. They get to experience the look and feel of research culture and bring that back to their students.”
Part of that scientific culture is understanding the checks and balances that are essential to the scientific community and then realizing the value of when answers do not come easily.
“Being in the lab and looking at that data shows you that it is OK to look into a question, thinking you can answer it, but seeing you have too many holes [in your data] to make it reliable,” says Steeves. “It reminded me of the reality of the scientific process in that the data won’t always be found exactly where you think it will be or that you won’t always have nice, round numbers.”
Along with lab work and analyzing data, RET also challenges teachers to hone their communication skills. Much like a middle school student at a science fair, RET participants create “posters” at the end of the summer and present them to their RET colleagues. But these posters aren’t made out of cardboard, glitter, and glue. These highly detailed posters summarize a hypothesis, list research methods, include graphs and charts, draw conclusions, suggest future study, and acknowledge the scientists who assisted them in their research.
Under the guidance of Green, Steeves will be presenting her poster in the spring at the New Hampshire Water Conference, where it will be seen by water professionals such as those from the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I grade my science students on their presentation skills, and now it is my turn,” laughs Steeves. “I have done presentations in college, but I’ve never had to do one at this level.”
For the professor mentors and their school teacher mentees, RET was a summer of collaboration, community, and a chance for each to be reminded of how it feels to be on the other side of the classroom: the teaching side and the student side.
“When you try to teach something and communicate it, that process illuminates the gaps in your understanding,” Hale says. “There’s this saying, ‘That you really don’t know something until you try to teach it.’”