Bringing Authentic Science to Schools

Schoodic Institute uses the word “authentic” in its work with Sumner Memorial High School to describe science learning that addresses real problems and needs, where people outside the school want the data that the students collect. It is also authentic because students learn that work by professional scientists isn’t limited to labs or offices. There is a lot of science that happens outdoors, requires hard work, and sometimes involves getting dirty and, as this picture shows, can require some agility.

Student keeping his boots on

Below, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) scientist Heidi Leighton is collecting a sample from a research plot in John Small Cove, west of Schieffelin Point in Gouldsboro. The black plastic boxes in front of her are part of the experiment. The conjecture is that the disturbance in seawater flow that the boxes create as tides move in and out will increase the rate of settlement of tiny seed clams (called “spat”). The experiment is part of a larger effort by Gouldsboro and Steuben’s shellfish committees to increase the number of wild clams that settle out of the water to grow on clam flats.

Collecting samples from mud

The piece of “scientific equipment” that Heidi is using to collect a core sample from the mud is a number 10 can with a hole drilled in the bottom and a cork to seal the hole. She removes the cork, presses the can down into the mud, replaces the cork, and lifts up the core sample. Then, as illustrated in the picture below, she places the entire can into a plastic bag, which is being held by a student in this picture. When she removes the cork, the mud, clams, and whatever else was in the sample drop into the bag.

Placing the sample in a bag

Each plastic bag with a core sample was labelled according to its plot in the experiment. Below is a diagram of the different plots and treatments. Each plot was 12 feet square. Half were covered with a net to protect small clams from crab predation, half were left uncovered. Half contained the plastic boxes intended to improve clam settlement, half did not. Half were higher up along the tidal gradient, half were lower. Plots 1-2 and 2-3, which had neither a net nor boxes, served as control plots, representing the “no treatment” condition.

design of the experiment

The plastic bags containing core samples were carried via “jet sled” from the site up to the DMR pickup truck — a distance of about a sixth of a mile. We also carried up two of the boxes from each plot that had boxes, together with mud, clams, and whatever else was in there. The picture  below shows the jet sled and the student power that made it work. As Heidi said, “Wow. I sure wish I could haul a sled with two full boxes through this mud.”

hauling samples in a jet sled

Just a quick look at the plastic boxes was enough to indicate that wild clams actually had settled in the top layer of mud and had started to grow. Later on, once we have washed all the mud of the samples (see my previous post) and counted and measured all the clams, we will find out whether the boxes actually improved clam settlement. But, in any case, when we retrieved the boxes the newly settled clams needed to be placed back into the mud. As the picture below shows, this involved flipping the boxes over. Once the boxes were flipped, the students needed to dig through the resulting “mud pie” so that the newly settled clams, which are still only a few millimeters across, could still extend their tiny siphons up to the surface.

flipping settlement boxes over

Once all the boxes were empty, they had to be washed and stacked. The same was true for the nets that had been used to cover half the plots. The photos below show what that work looks like.

cleaning settlement boxes

cleaning a net

The students involved in this project are getting the opportunity to find out that the life of a working scientist can be much different from the kind of activity that students typically encounter in high school science class. Just as important, the students are an essential part of making this study possible, and they are aware of that. We were working very close to the edge of tide on a day when the low tide was about two feet above mean low tide. We chose a day with a small tide in order to make washing the nets and boxes easier than it would have been if there had been a couple hundred feet of mud between the study site and the water line. But working right around the tide meant that we did not have a lot of time to do the work. Having done this once before, this crew knows how to watch out for and avoid walking through control plots that are not netted, help collect samples, wash nets, and, in general, look out for what needs to be done.

The week after the students helped collect the samples, they sat down with the washed-off samples and used  digital calipers under Heidi’s direction to measure and record the size of each clam in each sample. My next post will describe this task of turning samples into data that the students will later use to draw some conclusions about whether placing boxes in the mud affects clam settlement.


Posted in Authentic Science in Schools, Schools and Scientists | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Science, Community, and Clams

It would be great if students had a chance to do science that matters. It would be great if students had first-hand experience with the work and concerns of their communities. It would be great if we didn’t lose so many clams to green crabs and if we could return clam flats to something like their former productivity.  Maybe we can put those three ideas together.  Continue reading

Posted in Authentic Science in Schools, Schools and Scientists | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

NGSS as Maine’s Science Standards? It’s Not So Simple.

Many educators feel that the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) should become Maine’s science standards. There is no question that the NGSS have already had a positive impact on science instruction across Maine. But some of us who help schools and teachers engage in authentic scientific investigations that matter to their communities are concerned that wholesale adoption of NGSS without modifications could lead to more “school science” and less authentic science.  In this post, my colleagues Jenn Page (Hurricane Island Foundation) and Yvonne Thomas (Island Institute) and I share our thinking about how to retain what is good about the NGSS while avoiding what is problematic.  Continue reading

Posted in Instructional Practice | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Design of Middle and High School Citizen Science Programs

I have been invited by a National Academy of Science committee to share some of what we have learned at the Schoodic Institute in more than 10 years of designing and implementing citizen science programs in schools. The invitation was an opportunity to review our work, see how we addressed design problems and encountered new ones, and to consider what we learned from all of that. In this post I summarize Schoodic Institute’s work with citizen science and schools over the past decade and then use that summary to propose 8 key elements that should be considered within a design framework for citizen science in schools .  Continue reading

Posted in Instructional Practice, Professional Development | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Teaching Toward the Future: Adaptation and Climate Change

“I touch the future … I teach” — a quotation associated with Christa McAuliffe — captures something essential about the motivation and hope that keeps most of the teachers I know doing what they do. One of the things that makes teaching about climate change difficult is that it can seem to cast a shadow on that hope.  Continue reading

Posted in Professional Development, Schools and Scientists | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Inquiring Into How Authentic Science Learning Works

Back in September I wrote about the different understandings of what makes “authentic science learning” authentic and therefore engaging for students. Since writing that post, my Schoodic Institute colleagues and I have started a project that involves students in forest ecology and intertidal ecology research. And, yes, we have already seen how “authentic” work can quickly make a difference for some kids. In this post I want to sketch out some ideas for a research design that might give us insight into what “authentic” means to students and how it interacts with other features of the students’ personal and educational context to create outcomes.  Continue reading

Posted in Research | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Authentic Science

“Authentic” science learning is generally considered to be a good thing that might help engage students who are otherwise not interested in science. But … what makes science education authentic?  Continue reading

Posted in Informal science, Schools and Scientists | Tagged , , | 5 Comments