Michigan students helping KBS LTER with sustainable biofuels research

Network News Fall 2013, Vol. 26 No. 4
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Researchers at the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long- term Ecological Research (LTER) site have hatched a plot to engage elementary through high school students in real-life science and to help graduate students learn how to better communicate science to the public.Not a single plot, actually. More than 300 "garden" plots, all planted at 22 schools in 12 school districts in Southwest Michigan. Each plot contains a variety of plants and each is designed to mimic decades-long collaborative research at the KBS LTER and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

KBS faculty, staff and graduate students are working with teachers on experimental design, research protocols and curriculum development for the research network, which is part of the long running KBS K-12 Partnership with area schools in six counties across Southwest Michigan.

Tom Getty, KBS faculty and chairperson of the Zoology Department at Michigan State University (MSU), said that students and teachers planted switchgrass and native prairie seed in the plots as part of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded BEST project—BioEnergy SusTainability Schoolyard Research Network—which is itself part of the NSF GK-12 Program to improve both K-12 and graduate education by placing graduate students in area science classrooms.

Both switchgrass and prairie flowers are plants that KBS researchers are studying for their potential value as bioenergy crops.

"We are dealing with a fundamental question in ecology: What is the relationship between productivity and diversity," Getty said.

"It's a very ambitious project but an important one for KBS, the grad students and the kids. It's a real experiment where we don't yet know the answers and that's what science is all about. It's challenging for the graduate students yet simple enough for the kids to understand."

Getty said that BEST grew out of discussions he had with Phil Robertson and Charles "Andy" Anderson about how to expand the collaboration between KBS and science teachers in Southwest Michigan.

Robertson is professor of Ecosystem Science at KBS and lead scientist for the KBS LTER and the Department of Energy's Biofuel Sustainability Research at MSU. Anderson—also a KBS LTER scientist— is professor of teacher education whose research centers on the classroom teaching of science. For more than a decade, with support from LTER Schoolyard funds, KBS has helped elementary through high school science teachers learn more about science and had graduate students placed in schools to work with teachers.

In 2010 the NSF awarded KBS the GK-12 grant to fund BEST.

"This is an ideal project for KBS," Getty said. "One goal is to make future scientists better at explaining science to the public—taxpayers. Taxpayers often don't understand science because scientists have not done a very good job of explaining it to them."

At each school you'll see 24 3-meter by 3-meter plots with either switchgrass or 18 species of native prairie plants that were planted in 2010. Some plots are fertilized and others not. And some are harvested and others left to grow untouched.  Students have arranged the plots to reflect differing plant species, soil conditions, rainfall and the myriad of other factors that influence plant success.

"I wanted to start a schoolyard plot to see what happens over the years and to use the plots for student inquiry activities," Plainwell High School science teacher Sandy Breitenbach explained. "The goal is to get the kids to make comparisons between the switchgrass and prairie plants on plots that are fertilized and those not and the plots that are harvested and those left to grow, as well as other comparisons such as biodiversity in insects and plants, soil chemistry and other factors.

"I want the kids to think about what happens. We use the plots to look at differences in biomass because that leads to the amount of energy that can come from each plot."

Breitenbach said that her advance placement Biology students will be collecting additional data in the spring when they have completed the curriculum requirements and taken the Advanced Placement (AP) test.

"It's really cool to see the potential for fuel and how that fits into the ecosystem," said Nick Swain, a Plainwell senior heading into what may be a career in the sciences. "It has helped us understand how to make fuel in a way that sustains a natural environment."

Breitenbach said that the soil at Plainwell High School is not as good as, for example, a similar project at Gobles High School.

"Because the data we collect goes to a central data collection document run by KBS, students will be able to make comparisons between districts without having the expense of an actual visit to the sites," she said.

And there are not just significant differences but a variety of ways each school approached the diversity of their plots.

"At Delton-Kellogg High School one plot has a groundhog and the other does not," Getty said. “This uncontrolled variation is part of science. Students are required to estimate biomass production, estimate the diversity of plants in each plot and even look at the species of insects the crawl on the ground or fly around the plants. Insect biodiversity is especially popular with the kids."

And while the students dig into real practical science, the classroom is also helping graduate students broaden their teaching skills beyond the academic setting.

Cara Krieg, a Ph.D student in Zoology at MSU, has been helping in Breitenbach's class and in science classes in other high schools.

"I want to ultimately teach at the college level," said Krieg, who works out of the KBS campus and is in her second year in the NSF-funded GK-12 program.

"Since I started in the GK-12 program it has definitely given me a chance to learn more teaching and communication skills and the ability to teach at a more general, public level."

The GK-12 program provides fellowships and training for graduate students in science, technology and mathematics. The grad student interactions with students and teachers in K-12 schools helps them improve their ability to explain science in more general terms.

"While I want to teach at the college level, what I've seen in the K-12 environment has made me feel that I could be happy with this kind of public outreach," Krieg said.