This is an archived article.

April 2, 2009

GK-12’s five-year mission: Bringing graduate student researchers and K-12 teachers together to benefit teaching

K-12 school teachers know a lot about teaching. Graduate students know a lot about research and fieldwork. Put the two together and you have a dynamite combination that benefits both groups, not to mention the K-12 students with whom they work.


That’s what happens in National Science Foundation-funded projects known as GK-12. The five-year (subject to yearly renewal) grants bring together K-12 school teachers and graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to integrate cutting-edge material into the pre-college classroom.


At the UW, this is the first year of a GK-12 grant in marine science which includes graduate students in a variety of disciplines and high school teachers in Seattle, Orcas Island and San Juan Island. Ken Sebens, biology, the director of Friday Harbor Labs, is the principal investigator. Co-PIs are Daniel Grunbaum, oceanography; and David Armstrong, aquatic and fishery sciences.


“Friday Harbor Labs has had an active K-12 program for many years,” Sebens said. “We have two staff and three faculty doing it and they already work with the local schools in all grades except high school. So this was a chance to do something at the next level.”


This is the third time that the UW has had a GK-12 grant. An earlier program in engineering has been completed and another in mathematics is still running. Both of those programs have involved pre-high school students.


But the UW is the ideal institution to sponsor a marine science program, Sebens said, given its location close to the water combined with strong programs in related disciplines. This year, participating students come from fisheries, biology and oceanography.


The GK-12 program begins with summer workshops in which teachers and graduate students meet each other and hear presentations. Pairings are made between the teachers and the grad students. In the fall the students take another workshop that’s all about teaching at the pre-college level. Then for the rest of the academic year they spend 10 hours a week in the classroom — consulting with their assigned teacher or making presentations on specific subjects.


Fisheries student Amanda Bruner, for example, taught her students in West Seattle about how chemical fertilizers flow into the sea, causing a massive algal bloom in the Gulf of Mexico which then decays and results in a “dead zone” that kills sea life from a lack of oxygen (anoxic condition). But she didn’t want to leave them with that gloomy picture.


“When students look at the large picture of all the negative impacts we are having on the ocean it can be overwhelming,” she said. “It was effective to present small pieces of negative impacts followed immediately by suggestions of how students could change their practices to have a positive impact.”


In the case of the algal bloom problem, students learned about how eating organic foods can reduce the amount of fertilizers flowing into the sea, thus reducing the likelihood of algal blooms and the consequent anoxic “dead zones.”


“I was very careful to create a space for the students to share what they thought would work in their lives, instead of preaching to them about what they should do,” Bruner said. Using David Halvarg’s book, 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, she created activity sheets that outlined a number of conservation practices.


“I asked about how these practices related to them and how they could implement some of them in their everyday lives.”


“It’s clear that having experts — for that is what graduate student researchers are — in the high school classroom is a boon for teachers and their students,” said Loveday Conquest, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences who is serving as faculty coordinator for the grad students working in Seattle schools. (Megan Dethier, biology, has a similar role on the islands.) “The graduate fellows offer a level of expertise and current research experience that the teachers really appreciate.”


But the graduate students learn a lot too. “NSF’s goal is mostly to take these grad students and improve their teaching and presentation skills — their communication skills,” Sebens said. “The grad students they want are ones who have a strong interest in teaching but who are going to go on to be researchers. They want researchers to be more involved in teaching and better able to communicate what they do.”


Bruner said the program had helped her toward that goal, providing training in teaching techniques and the chance to test educational theory in the classroom. “I have learned about the importance of understanding students’ background and giving them an opportunity to tell me what they know about a subject before I start teaching about it,” she said. “I have also gained insight into the challenges of teaching science in public schools and the importance of improving science literacy in high school graduates. The training and teaching experience have made me more effective at communicating science to students, the general public, and scientists from other disciplines.”


The graduate students can serve another purpose in the classroom besides content transmission, Conquest said. “Having young scientists not much older than the high school students, scientists who are excited about their work, certainly presents excellent role models for the students in terms of attending college and potentially majoring in sciences.”


Colleen Kellogg, for example, is an oceanography graduate student who has been to the Arctic three times to do research — not something the average high school teacher has done. “Just the fact that I do my research in the Arctic allows me to have discussions with my students about the challenges that face marine and terrestrial organisms in the Arctic with the changing climate our Earth is currently experiencing,” she said.


The GK-12 grant also helps the University in that it provides another way to support graduate students, who receive year-round funding, Sebens said.


The University has already been notified that the grant will be renewed and is gearing up for a second year. Sebens said the feedback from the participating teachers has been uniformly positive and all of them have offered to be part of the program again.


But the benefits aren’t confined to participating schools. “We’re starting to collect some of the labs and field exercises our students have done so we can make them available to other high schools,” Sebens said. “We’ll build up a library that any of the high schools — not just the ones associated with us — can use.”


Unfortunately, the grant ends in five years and can’t be renewed, but the effects on participating graduate students and K-12 teachers are likely to last.


As Bruner said, “This fellowship is giving me access to the skills, opportunities and organizations that can help me navigate my career to encompass my interests in marine and environmental science, outreach education and issues of diversity in science.”