You are here

Partnering for Science

Story by
Nancy Joseph

In a Garfield High School chemistry class, UW graduate student Caroline Pew explains why the use of two metals in the Statue of Liberty has caused extensive corrosion. She then introduces a lab exercise that demonstrates the principle. 

On Orcas Island, high school students hit the beach to conduct field experiments about tides—part of an intertidal unit developed for the class by UW graduate student Alex Hart. 

Students in a field, building a rocket.

Kevin Turner, GK-12 Fellow from the Department of Biology, demonstrates rocket building to Lopez Island High School students.  Media credit: Marc Vemeire

Pew and Hart are among a select group of UW doctoral students who have partnered with Western Washington high school science teachers through the Ocean and Coastal Interdisciplinary Science (OACIS) Program, which aims to bring the energy and expertise of practicing scientists to high school classrooms. The program, now in its third year, is funded through a five-year National Science Foundation GK-12 grant in marine science. 

The UW students, about half of whom are from the College of Arts and Sciences, serve as fellows for a full year, with the potential to renew for a second year. They continue their dissertation research while spending about 15 hours per week in the schools, most of that time in classes. Both they and the high school teachers receive funding through the grant. 

“The intent of the program is to make the fellows better teachers and communicators while they are improving instruction in the schools, but not to put a dent in their progress toward their degree," says Ken Sebens, professor of biology and aquatic and fishery sciences, director of Friday Harbor Labs, and principal investigator on the grant. “The high school students get to see someone, not that much older, who gets to do cool things in science. From NSF’s perspective, that’s an important part of this.”

Nine fellows are participating at six schools in 2010-2011, including Roosevelt, Garfield, Ballard, and West Seattle High Schools in Seattle and Orcas and Friday Harbor High Schools in the San Juan Islands. 

Getting Ready

Before the fellows step foot in a high school classroom, they meet and brainstorm with their assigned teacher during an August retreat at UW’s Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island. “That time is really invaluable,” says Heather Snookal, a science teacher at Garfield High School. “It’s time away from daily life when we can really sit and collaborate.” 

Students looking at materials in a lab classroom.

Having Biology doctoral student Noelle Machnicki in class "makes the science seem more real" to students, says Roosevelt High School science teacher Margaux Isaman (left, with Machnicki). Media credit: Mary Levin

It’s also a time to figure out how to make best use of the fellows' skills. “High school teachers are used to working with student teachers, but these fellows are not student teachers,” explains Sebens. “They are experts on a subject. Their role is to show what it’s like to do research and what a science career might be.”

Returning teacher Snookal says she has found the fellows to be particularly adept at designing experiments. “Teachers have a lot of experience managing kids; fellows have a lot of experience doing science,” she explains. “They know how to structure research so that it works. It’s a really good mix.”

Roosevelt High School science teacher Margaux Isaman, participating for the first time this year, came to the retreat armed with a week-by-week syllabus of topics for the coming school year. “I thought it would be useful in thinking about where Noelle could help,” she recalls, referring to fellow Noelle Machnicki. “But I discovered that it’s hard to plan too much until you are in the classroom.”

For her part, Machnicki, a graduate student in biology, had taught before, but not at the high school level. After years serving as a teaching assistant in UW biology classes, she was interested in working with a different population. “I felt that learning to teach science to a non-science audience would be really valuable,” she says. “It’s a skill that every scientist should have.”

Making Science Relevant

To prepare for this new teaching role, OACIS fellows attend an intensive, week-long UW course on K-12 teaching at the start of the school year. Taught by Tansy Clay, OACIS program manager and postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Oceanography, the course focuses on inquiry-based teaching methods and science education theory, research, and practice. 

Of course nothing can fully prepare fellows for the reality of standing in the front of a class of easily distracted teenagers. Most find the experience both trying and exhilarating. 

Students holding up a glass container of plankton.

Students from Friday Harbor High School examine their plankton catch aboard Friday Harbor Labs' research vessel, Centennial. Media credit: Margo Thorp

“When we teach UW students, they have chosen to come to the University and take this class. That’s not the case in high school,” says second-year fellow Dan Evans from Biology, who spent last year at Ingraham High School and is now at Ballard High School. “Many high school students will not go on to college, and more of them may never take another science class. This may be their one chance to interact with a scientist in the thick of it, and it’s our chance to get them excited about science.”

That’s a tall order when faced with students who may be indifferent to science or school in general. But there are ways to reach them. Pew finds it essential to connect science to things the students already care about. She works hard to reach students who seem distracted or disengaged.

“You have to be more creative about making it relevant to their goals and interests,” she says. “Once you get to know them and what they want out of life, it becomes a tool to help motivate them. I’ve found that many students are smart and creative—sometimes unexpectedly.”

Over the course of a school year, fellows take on a range of roles, from discussion leader to content expert to developer of hands-on activities. They have arranged field trips to the UW’s fish collection and Botany Greenhouse. They have visited a local wastewater treatment plant and the Seattle Aquarium. And while they teach, they also learn from the high school students, their science-teacher partners, and other OACIS fellows. 

“As lessons learned are passed on from previous fellows to the incoming cohort, new fellows are spending much less time on putting together lessons appropriate for high school students,” says Sebens. “The counsel from past years is helping tremendously.”

A Scientist’s Perspective 

For the high school teachers, the presence of a fellow in their classroom has many benefits. There are obvious ones, including an improved teacher-to-student ratio and curriculum enhancements. But a less tangible benefit has proven equally important: the opportunity for students to hear a scientist’s perspective. 

“When students ask me a question, they expect there to be an absolute answer,” says Isaman. “But when Noelle is in class, she’s able to talk about how researchers are studying that very question right now. It makes the science seem more real.”

This role is especially handy when students gripe about assignments being useless in real life. “We’ve all heard that one,” laughs Pew. “One day we were doing empirical formulas and once again students wanted to know why they needed to learn this. But I actually use empirical formulas in my research. I was able to describe when and why I use them. It helped them see that the formulas have a purpose.”

The National Science Foundation hopes that this year-long contact with passionate young scientists will inspire high school students to study science themselves in college—even if they sometimes mistake the fellows for student teachers.

“A lot of my students don’t really get the distinction between the fellow and a student teacher,” admits Snookal, “but they do understand that the fellow is doing science and getting paid for it. I figure it really doesn’t matter how they see the fellows as long as they get something out of having them there.”

And Snookal believes her students gain a great deal from the fellows’ involvement.

“I think this is the way education ought to be done—involving the community, having people share their expertise,” she says. “We’re all responsible for the future we’re producing. We should all partner like this to help kids develop the skills they need.”