Network News Fall 2001, Vol. 14 No. 2


GCE-LTER Pilots Its First Schoolyard Program

This past July, ten educators, two facilitators and several LTER scientists worked together to pilot a model for the GCE-LTER Schoolyard Program. Dubbing themselves S.A.P.E.L.O.-Scientists and Professional Educators Learning Outdoors-the team represented educators from both classroom and outdoor programs teaching students from age three to eighty-three across Georgia.

The model, proposed by the facilitators from the Department of Science Education of the University of Georgia and the Georgia Association of Marine Education, teamed educators and scientists for a week of research in the salt marshes and waters in and around Sapelo Island and the adjacent mainland-the focus site of the LTER. The unusual teams-teachers and researchers together-gathered data in the field, installed critical equipment, and analyzed and expounded upon lab results. The research and its place in the larger picture that is the mission of the GCE-LTER was the focus of many chats around the somewhat remote facilities.

For ten days, Dr. Carolyn Ruppel (Ga. Tech) and Dr. Steve Pennings (UGA) along with their graduate assistants had active research projects underway in the Sapelo area. The educators, acting as voluntary assistants, worked both in the field and in the laboratory. Here is a synopsis of their experiences:

  • A third grade teacher and an outdoor educator could be heard laughing as they slogged their way through the marsh in search of just the right kind of grasshopper. "Just wait 'til my kids hear what I did!" was followed by the whoosh of the collection net. The "victims" were later taken back to the lab where the team conducted experiments in foraging habits and feeding rates.
  • A middle school earth science teacher and a high school physical science teacher spent their days with Dr. Carolyn Ruppel and her team collecting continuous sediment cores and installing groundwater-monitoring wells to study freshwater flow beneath salt-water marshes. Despite winning the daily "dirtiest researcher award", the two gladly went back out with their team every day, wearing their new knowledge as proudly as they were wearing their muddy attire. From then on, their talk centered on the applications that they plan to transfer into their classroom with an occasional thought about a change of career-to that of hydrogeology under Dr. Ruppel!
  • The task of catching, tagging, and radio tracking female blue crabs by another outdoor educator was made humorous by the Maryland native's "complaints." NOT having a pot of boiling water and some crab boil spice handy during the capturing phase was, to her, a travesty! "What a waste" she sighed...and I'm so hungry!" And off they went with their boat and receiver to see where the darlings had gone....
  • Meanwhile, two high school teachers-one from biology and one in mathematics-assisted in the engineering, construction, and installation of protective housings for Sondes used in the large-scale study of water temperature, salinity and water flow across the LTER site. Involving extended time in the LTER boat travelling to all the monitoring sites, these two had the chance to see the amazing diversity across the entire study area and shared the incredible sights they saw everyday. They also had the best tan!
  • The last group consisted of two high school biology teachers with nearly sixty years of classroom experience between them and an elementary special education teacher whose research emphasis is teaching science to children with special needs-a rare person indeed. They, too, were able to see a great deal of the variety that makes up the LTER site as they collected massive amounts of data on plant size and zonation in the marshes. With their unique backgrounds and length of service, it was hard to tell who was learning from whom! The researcher frequently expounded on her growing knowledge while the teachers humbly proclaimed to simply be doing what they have always done...teach.
  • As if that wasn't enough, during "off" hours, the educators helped build boardwalks leading to research sites in efforts to protect the incredibly sensitive life underfoot.
  • Each evening, participants shared experiences/adventures, weaving together the bigger picture that is the view of Sapelo and the on-going research of the GCE-LTER as well as brainstorming adaptations of that research into their own educational setting.

This pilot study served multiple roles. It provided a cohort of passionate volunteers a chance to be involved in active research, tested the feasibility of teacher/scientist interface under field research conditions, and capitalized on the diverse experience of this special group to fine tune a model for future workshops.

The consensus among both teacher and scientist alike was that the workshop design was an excellent experience but that the fragile nature of the salt marsh ecosystem precluded bringing large numbers of school-aged children to the island and the research sites within the LTER. It was concluded that the educational outreach of this schoolyard program ought to be designed around having educators use such a research experience as this to design and conduct parallel experiments within their educational setting.

With the advantage of the distance learning network in Georgia, the well designed web support of the GCE-LTER and with corroborating conference calls to the scientists, the ability of the educators to use the research as critically needed local examples of math/science application is seen to be immeasurable. Ultimately, the participating educators saw the research as a chance to meet the mandated standards of content and application with a "local" flavor they feel will increase their students' interest - and their own. The researchers, on the other hand, were amazed and impressed with the knowledge and abilities of the teachers. Quickly realizing that the quality of their future research assistants is dependent upon the quality of these teachers' emphasis on coastal ecology, a union of goals and ambitions occurred.

Finally, we leave you with a vision of a current "research project." The third grade teacher who claimed that the grasshopper study would be the basis of her new fall science curriculum, and who said that it would be so easy to do the "same" experiments is using her new knowledge and the web pages associated with the LTER. She is now having her students download data from the grasshopper project and compare that to their own data as they, too, swipe their little nets through the air in hopes of collecting just the right kind of grasshopper. Watch out Dr. Pennings.... Your next graduate assistants are being made in a small elementary classroom in the middle of "nowhere" in Georgia!