Infusing Education with Research
True reform at the system level requires the participation of everyone who cares about improving the way that students learn about science, mathematics, and engineering. And that includes the research community itself. Finding more ways to foster the infusion of research into education is a major NSF goal as the agency heads into the new millennium.
"If we are to succeed in making our education system truly world class," NSF Director Rita Colwell told the U.S. House of Representatives' science committee in April 1999, "we must better integrate our research portfolio with the education we support."
One way NSF has been taking on this challenge is to fund programs that link ongoing NSF research projects with K-12 students through information technologies such as the Internet. A prime example: the Albatross Project.
Wake Forest University biologist David Anderson is tracking albatrosses that nest on Tern Island, Hawaii, in an effort to understand (among other things) how the availability of food affects the huge seabirds' extremely slow rate of reproduction. The birds embark on searches for food that last days and even weeks. Do the albatrosses simply fly to relatively close feeding sites and, once there, take plenty of time to gather their food? Or do they travel to remote feeding areas, pick up their food, and return immediately? Supported by NSF, Anderson has worked for years to discover why the trips take so long, using satellites to keep tabs on albatrosses fitted with miniature transmitters.
But early in his research Anderson realized that his project had applications beyond the science of albatross behavior. "It's a perfect opportunity to engage school-age kids in science," he says.
So in a collaboration that continues today, Anderson arranges to feed the satellite data via daily e-mails to middle school classes that sign up for the experiment from all over the United States. Teachers receive software and support material that help them guide their students in making sense of the birds' movements. A related Web site provides even more information, such as weather systems that could affect flight patterns, basic facts about albatross biology, and material on the history and geography of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Mathematical techniques to calculate the birds' flight distances and speed are clearly explained. The students then analyze the data in terms of the hypotheses about the birds' food journeys.
"Kids need to know that scientists pose a conjecture, or hypothesis, and then collect data to try to prove or disprove the hypothesis," says Anderson. "This project emphasizes science as a process and a tool to get reliable answers to questions. At the same time, the data help us answer basic questions about declining albatross populations worldwide." So far the project has filled in many details about albatross behavior, including the fact that the birds can fly for hours, and maybe even days, without flapping their wings, thereby conserving energy on long-distance hunts for food.
Another example of how information technologies are allowing
students to perform actual research is the NSF-funded Hands
On Universe Project, originally developed in 1991 by astrophysicist
Carl Pennypacker of the Space Sciences Laboratory at the University
of California in Berkeley. As large telescopes became automated, they
began generating huge numbers of new images that needed to be analyzed.
Pennypacker's idea was to get students involved by providing schools
with image processing software,
an archive of astronomical images, and related curriculum materials.
In 1995, a couple of astronomy teachersHughes Pack of Northfield
Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Massachusetts, and Tim Spuck of Oil
City Area High School in Oil City, Pennsylvaniateamed up with Jodi
Asbell-Clarke of TERC, a nonprofit research and development organization
in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop a Web-based project that works
in conjunction with the Hands On Universe (HOU) curriculum. Their HOU
Asteroid Search project allows students to download recent images via
the Internet from an NSF-supported telescope in Chile with the specific
aim of looking for previously unidentified asteroids. Over the years,
students have found nearly 200 asteroids that appear never to have
been seen before in the main belt of asteroids circulating through
the solar system.
Then in 1998, three high school students taking Pack's astronomy
class made an even more exciting discovery: a previously unknown
asteroid in the Kuiper Belt, a collection of celestial objects
orbiting beyond Neptune thought to be leftovers from the
formation of the solar system. At the time of discovery,
only about seventy-two such objects had been identifiednone,
until now, by anyone other than a professional astronomer. The
studentsHeather McCurdy, Miriam Gustafson, and George
Petersonhad become star-gazers of the first order.
"They called me over to take a look at a couple of dots on an image they were analyzing," recalls Pack of that October afternoon. "They suspected the dots were artifacts, and I agreed with them. But right below those dots was another pair of dots that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I recognized the signature of Kuiper Belt objects. But I was a good teacher and just took a deep breath and turned to walk away. Then one of the girls said, 'Mr. Pack, what about these?' They told me the dots looked like evidence of an object that was moving, and at a very great distance."
A week later, with the help of their cohorts in Oil City, the Northfield students had done all the calculations needed to confirm their find.
Says HOU founder Carl Pennypacker, "This is a fantastic piece of science, of education, of discovery. The Northfield students' discovery has shown that all students from a broad range of backgrounds can make solid, exciting, and inspiring scientific contributions."
Students aren't the only ones to benefit from direct experience with scientific research. NSF sponsors a number of programs that temporarily put K-12 teachers "in the field," with or without their students, while also coaching the teachers on how to transfer their research experience into classroom learning. As a result, NSF-sponsored teachers are working alongside scientists in the forests of Puerto Rico and the floodplains of the Mississippi Delta, at Washington State's Pacific National Laboratory and West Virginia's National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Some are even going to the ends of the Earth itself.
Each year the Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic (TEA) program sends between eight and twelve elementary and secondary teachers to research stations at or near the polar ice caps for up to eight weeks. TEA teachers have explored hydrothermal vents around the Antarctic Peninsula, pulled ice cores from the Greenland Ice Sheet, and released weather balloons at South Pole Station. Professional support abounds, both before and after the research trips. Veterans from past TEA expeditions help mentor the new recruits, who also spend time at the home institutions of their scientist-partners where they get a thorough grounding in their particular project. During their expedition or upon their return from the ice, TEA teachers receive professional help in turning their experience into classroom lessons, sharing their knowledge with other teachers back home, and even attending scientific conferences as co-presenters with other members of the polar learning community.