Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ecological Field Studies Program

Written for the Smithsonian's staff newspaper, The Torch

Getting out of the classroom and into the field
By Mara Jonas
OPA Staff Writer

Teachers who participated in the National Science Resource Center’s summer Ecological Field Studies Academy are returning to the classroom this fall equipped with new skills and techniques for teaching science.

Eight teachers spent six jam-packed days working side-by-side with scientists from the National Zoo learning to apply field techniques to classroom education and doing everything from setting up a biodiversity monitoring grid to using a Global Positioning System and setting camera traps. The program was hosted by the Zoo’s Center for Research and Conservation in Front Royal, Va.

According to David Marsland, director of the NSRC Professional Development Center, the over-arching goal of the Ecological Field Studies Academy—and other NSRC Smithsonian Science Education Academies—is to connect teachers with Smithsonian science and the museum world. The specific goal of the Ecological Field Studies Academy is to help secondary school teachers develop inquiry-based course content, using the natural world as a living laboratory, Marsland says.

The teachers used CRC’s lush campus as their own living laboratory while earning three master’s-level credits through Virginia Commonwealth University.

For one of the “living lab” activities, academy participants awoke before dawn on a sunny Thursday morning and made their way from their hotel to CRC’s campus, where researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch Program had already set up a number of almost-invisible, J-shaped, silk mist nets.

The nets are designed so that a bird unknowingly flies into the vertical top portion of the net, drops down unharmed into the curved bottom and is trapped until a researcher removes it for study and banding.

The team caught an indigo bunting and a male orchard oriel, among other species of song birds. Academy participants witnessed the researchers in action—measuring and weighing the birds, determining their sex by gently blowing the feathers on the birds’ bellies to reveal a brood patch for females or cloacal protuberances for males, and ultimately, banding and releasing the birds.
While all of the participants enjoyed the mist-netting demonstration, some felt that the logistics of such an activity might be difficult to replicate at their schools. However, CRC Education Manager Jennifer Buff points out that those challenges are an opportunity to engage the community. “Almost every area has a nature center or another resource that can be tapped,” she says.

Most of the research techniques taught at the Academy are easily replicated on school grounds. “There are many barriers for schools when it comes to teaching outdoor education, especially off-campus,” Buff says. “That’s why we promote this idea of using a piece of the school’s grounds—whether rural, suburban or even urban—as a living, learning laboratory,” she continues.

Many of the Academy participants have plans to do just that.

Amanda Gonczi, a middle-school teacher from The Plains, Va., and Bob Fuhrman, a high-school teacher from Charlottesville, N.C., both plan to study small mammals with their students.

“Studying live animals will get the kids excited about science,” Gonczi says. Fuhrman agrees: “With all the focus on standardized tests in schools, I want to get my students outside to appreciate what’s out there,” he says.

Another participant, Mike Jewell, a teacher at St. John School in Fenton, Mich., plans to set up a long-term aquatic study of a creek that runs through his school’s grounds using the data collection, management and reporting techniques he learned at the Academy.

Justin Rasmussen, a teacher at the International Berne School in Switzerland, plans to replicate with his students a predator survey experiment conducted during the Academy. For the experiment, the teachers placed real quail eggs and and small clay models in fake nests at various locations on CRC’s campus and left them overnight. The next morning, the group noted which nests had been disturbed and examined bite marks left in the clay eggs to infer information about predators in the area.

For those teachers unable to stretch the bounds of customary science activities, the butterfly and vegetation surveys they conducted during the Academy may be more viable options.

“Students can conduct these surveys on their own just by exploring their own backyards,” NSRC Education Specialist Juliet Crowell says.

“Science education is about wonder and exploration and need not be confined to the classroom,” Crowell continues. “It is NSRC’s mission to help our fellow educators—to not only educate the next generation of scientists, but also to inspire students to be proactive, informed citizens.”

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