LTER Holds First Education Workshop

Network News Fall 1998, Vol. 11 No. 2
Network News
Against the backdrop of the Sonoran desert, the first LTER Education Workshop took place 22-24 October 1998 at Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona. Two divisions of NSF funded the workshop: Environmental Biology and Education and Human Resources. The purpose of the workshop was to formally define and develop strategies for advancing the educational agenda of the LTER sites.

Teams from 13 LTER sites participated. Each site team included an LTER research scientist, a science educator or education specialist, and a teacher from a nearby elementary or secondary school.

Over the course of two days, participants engaged in discussions about current LTER educational endeavors as well as K-12 science education programs as they are directed toward reform by the NRC’s National Science Education Standards (1998) and the AAAS’s Benchmarks for Science Literacy (1993). Ideally, LTER educational programs will articulate with these goals for pre-college and undergraduate science education reform. One model for collaboration that enhances communication among all groups is through teacher/scientist/student partnerships.

The Workshop format modeled various instructional strategies that engage students in active learning. Diane Ebert-May, scientist, science-education expert and chair of the LTER Education Committee, explained to the participants that the goal of science education reform is to provide opportunities for all students to better learn science through inquiry.

"Field sites are ideal settings to exemplify inquiry and help make the link between field experiences and classroom learning," Ebert-May said. The idea is to create a science experience for students so they can place themselves in the picture. "It’s much more than a field trip to an LTER site," Ebert-May said.

A field-inquiry exercise demonstrated this point. In this exercise, teams strode into the "field," or surrounding desert, and formulated science questions and methods for research geared toward school children and based on the National Science Education Standards. One activity designed for fourth graders was based on the goal of helping students learn about photosynthesis. For example, of two cacti of the same species (Opuntia versicolor Engelm. Staghorn cholla), one was purple while the other was green. Still others displayed both colors. The inquiry was simply, "Why?" Through his experience as a biological technician for the US Forest Service at the Coweeta LTER site, Bob McCollum was able to suggest simple tools such as a compass, other measuring devices, and a sunshade that students could use to explore this question. Procedures included a short transect and a time line for conducting a simple experiment.

Although these methods may seem basic to an LTER researcher, few science teachers and even fewer students are ever exposed to inquiry-based science and fieldwork.

"LTER sites and other field stations are prime locations for increasing learning by K-12 students and their teachers," Ebert-May said.

One of the challenging questions of the workshop was "How can LTER benefit from involvement in educational programs, kindergarten through postgraduate education?" To explore this issue each group (PIs, teachers and science educators) listed the pros and cons of an LTER education partnership. Later, groups presented their lists to the Workshop.

"This was the most interesting part of the workshop," said Art McKee, H.J. Andrews LTER. The exercise revealed that all groups had similar concerns regarding time and funding constraints. Most thought that "too much would be expected of them, and that they might be distracted or diverted from their basic missions," of research or teaching, McKee said.

Despite the concerns, all groups were convinced that the project is worthwhile. "I liked the consensus that emerged," McKee said. The list of benefits included: creating a focus for intra-site synthesis activities, creating an opportunity to discover new frontiers for research, and creating alternative career paths for graduate students and postdoctoral teaching fellows who, through supplemental funding, could become education liaisons at sites.

"It was refreshing to see that other sites have many of the same challenges and limitations," said Brian Kloeppel of Coweeta LTER, "and are looking to increased funding via the LTER Initiative to solve some of these problems."

Karen Baker of the Palmer LTER team believes the partnerships between scientists, information managers, and educators within an LTER framework holds much potential. "So many new ideas emerge when people from different backgrounds get together," Baker said. Making the LTER websites and data more accessible for use in classrooms was one teacher request. "Information managers work with information synthesis and data delivery," Baker says, "so the application of such concepts to the realm of education can be viewed as a natural extension of the existing user base."

Descriptions of current educational activities, preliminary action plans for the future, and a report with recommendations to LTER and the National Science Foundation can all be found on the Website —