Status Report

Extreme outreach: CU-Boulder grad students head to Antarctica for research and education

By SpaceRef Editor
December 22, 2009
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Extreme outreach: CU-Boulder grad students head to Antarctica for research and education

By Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Sun Editor

Kallin Tea grew up in inner city Los Angeles, far from the alpine regions outside Boulder, Colo., where she now conducts research for her PhD on how soil development over time affects nutrient availability and plant species diversity.

A semester-long field research program at Monterey, Calif., while still an undergraduate at Stanford University , was her first foray into the outdoors, thinking it would be a great beach getaway. “It was hilarious. I was out in skirts and high heels, climbing through the tidal pools,” Tea recalled.

Those days are long over for Tea, now an experienced field researcher who uses her experiences to teach and inspire schoolchildren in the Boulder Valley School District as part of a National Science Foundation -funded project called EXcellence in Teaching and Research for Elementary and Middle School Engagement in Science (EXTREMES).

Project EXTREMES puts University of Colorado at Boulder (CU-Boulder) graduate students into the classroom to help develop curriculum and teach underserved students about concepts in science, mathematics, engineering and technology.

Tea and three other CU-Boulder fellows will go to an altogether different extreme this year when they head to Antarctica for a month of field research. Their hope is to gain new experiences related to their own research interests that they can also use in the classroom to engage elementary and middle school children.

“I think one facet of [classroom outreach] is to bring in a personal connection,” explained Loren Sackett, one of the other Project EXTREMES participants headed to the Ice. “We’re all real scientists doing real research in these extreme environments. We’re not just their teacher telling them something out of a book. We’re doing it and showing them. Hopefully, when we go to Antarctica we’ll be able to bring a lot of that to them directly.”

In Antarctica, the graduate students will join scientists involved in the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, an interdisciplinary study of a polar desert ecosystem. The Dry Valleys LTER is part of a network of 26 long-term research sites , mostly in and around the United States, though a second LTER site exists near Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Diane McKnight , a CU-Boulder professor and scientist, heads the hydrology studies of the Dry Valleys LTER — the role of the water system in the overall ecosystem — and also works on the Niwot Ridge LTER near Boulder. She was instrumental in arranging the upcoming trip for the CU-Boulder students.

“I am excited that after their experience on the ice, the fellows will work with our LTER team to develop educational materials that many scientists who work in the Dry Valleys can use when they return to the U.S.,” said McKnight, whose own outreach work includes a book she wrote, “The Lost Seal,” as part of the LTER Schoolyard Book series.

“The … fellows will learn about the many steps that are involved in getting to the ice and will experience the excitement of first setting foot in Antarctica. They will also provide new insights for our work,” she added.

The collaboration made sense for all involved, according to Susan Whitehead, a CU-Boulder grad student whose PhD dissertation involves studying chemical defenses by fruits against pathogens, insect and predators. In Antarctica, she’ll look at a little-researched microorganism called a tardigrade that lives in the dry, high-saline soils of the Dry Valleys.

Said Whitehead, “We could provide some benefit to the LTER program by extending their outreach activities. We would also be involved in research and work in the field with them.”

And Antarctic science is certainly an easy sell to schoolchildren, Tea added. “As soon as I mention Antarctica, I have their full attention. I can get concepts conveyed to them, which are otherwise pretty complicated.”

Project EXTREMES, one of a number such projects funded by NSF’s Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) program under the Division of Graduate Education , received a five-year grant for about $585,000 and is in the second year of the program. Nine CU-Boulder fellows work with eight schools in the Boulder Valley School District.

It’s no secret that U.S. students have fared poorly in recent years in science and math compared to other schoolchildren around the world. The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of the world’s 30 most developed countries, according to a 2007 Washington Post article. The U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing their counterparts in 23 countries.

Tea said the CU-Boulder grads, who teach one year each in elementary and middle schools, try to make science more tangible with hands-on experiments, with plans to stream real-time data to the classrooms from field research. And the fellows, meeting at a local Boulder coffee shop, are young and outgoing — dashing the typical stereotype of a bespectacled professor.

“So, when they meet us, and see that we’re approachable and amiable, they start being able to envision themselves in that role in the future,” said Tea, adding that she stresses to the children that you don’t need a lot of money to go to college, as she’s been on a scholarship her whole career.
“I’ve seen a lot of ambition pop up that wasn’t there before,” she added.

Noted Whitehead, whose research takes her to Costa Rica on occasion: “They get really excited when they hear what your day-to-day life is all about.”

Whitehead said Project EXTREMES also helps the fellows’ development as educators. “It helps your communication skills, and at the same time we’re providing educational opportunities for students they wouldn’t normally get. Hopefully the teachers are also benefitting. We do a lot of professional development, workshops for teachers.”

Has the experience thus far nudged any of them to consider a career as a schoolteacher?

Said Sackett, “I just wanted to get experience teaching different ages. I always thought I would like to teach, but I don’t really know that. It seems like a great idea, but what is it really like in the classroom? Getting a feel for how it is at different ages gives you a lot better idea of what it would be like teaching in the classroom.”

NSF-funded research in this story: Lesley Smith, University of Colorado at Boulder, Award No. 0742544

SpaceRef staff editor.