Scientific Inquiry Stimulates Young Minds in New York's Schools
Metta Winter, Cornell Focus Magazine
soil organisms that eat motor oil. Raising beetles and turning
them loose on a nuisance plant. Testing a new road deicing
product and sending the results to the highway department.
New York's schoolchildren are finding out what real science
entails by doing actual research on environmental issues-with
expert guidance from Cornell scientists and educators.
Of all the
environmental science projects that teacher Mark Johnson
does with his 11th and 12th graders, he says the "slickest"
begins in the student parking lot. Shovels and buckets in
hand, Ithaca High School students scan the ground for dirt
blackened with motor oil. When they find a soggy spot, Johnson
mentions something startling: soils can naturally contain
organisms whose favorite food is motor oil.
Can this really
During the next
ten weeks, Johnson's 100 students will engage in a process
created by Cornell's Environmental Inquiry program through
which they will figure out how to test for the presence of
likely bacterial candidates. If they hit pay dirt, they will
go on to compare the oil-eating power of the organisms they
have found with the species used by the Environmental Protection
Agency to clean up after the Exxon Valdez spill.
shows students that bioremediation is really possible, that
you can clean up chemical spills with organisms that exist-they're
right outside in the parking lot," says Johnson of an
experience that students describe as "way cool."
in Alan Fiero's class at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland,
outside of Albany, are every bit as surprised by the notion
that bugs can be used to get rid of unwanted plants. But
they are soon convinced that biocontrol works once they have
raised their own beetles, Galerucella pusilla and G. calmariensis,
and watched as these natural predators of purple loosestrife
(a nuisance plant that chokes wetlands and displaces native
plants and animals) keep this plant in check.
and fall we go out to survey the purple loose- strife at
two sites," says Fiero, who has shared how to teach
this unit on population ecology with nearly 30 other New
York public school science teachers.
excited about being part of an authentic research project.
They like the idea that what they are doing may make a difference
by improving the ecology of our area," he points out.
And so it goes,
all across New York State, where over the past eight years
more than 500 teachers have used Environmental Inquiry (EI)
materials to raise the level of science education by engaging
their middle and high school students in original research
relevant to their local communities.
EI represents a
partnership between Cornell's Center for the Environment
and the departments of natural resources and education. This
collaboration brings scientists together with educators to
make Cornell environmental science research accessible to
high school classes. EI evolved over the past decade out
of several programs funded by the National Science Foundation
led by Marianne Krasny (natural resources), William Carlsen
and Christine Cunningham (education), and Nancy Trautmann
(Center for the Environment).
Since the National Academy
of Sciences released the National Science Education Standards
(for grades K through 12) four years ago, the program is
more important than ever. These standards, intended to form
the bottom line for how science is taught in the United States,
specify that the central strategy should be to involve students
in "authentic inquiry or research." Yet it is not
unusual for high school science teachers to have had no research
experience themselves, because conducting original research
is not a requirement in most teacher education programs.
While a growing
number of schools have environmental science courses at either
the basic of advanced placement levels, often these courses
consist of a broad overview of worldwide issues with little
coverage of topics of local interest. "We've found that
when students have the chance to design and carry out research
related to their local environment, they become excited about
the relevance of what they are learning," says Nancy
Trautmann, the Center for the Environment's program leader
for EI who has spent much of the last decade developing science
education materials for teachers. (Her paperback Composting
in the Classroom: Scientific Inquiry for High School Students,
co-authored with Associate Professor of Natural Resources
Marianne Krasny, sells worldwide.)
developed by commercial textbook publishers are often more
like cookbook-style demonstrations than true experiments.
With textbook labs, the teacher knows the outcome in advance,
and if students follow the directions faithfully, they will
all get the same results.
"Our goal is quite different,"
says Trautmann of the curriculum materials EI is producing
in the areas of bioremediation and waste management, environmental
toxicology, ecology, and watershed dynamics. "Rather
than learning science as a static body of facts, students
learn the process through which scientific facts are constructed
and then potentially revised as scientific knowledge continually
evolves with new discoveries."
Johnson says some
of the best science happens when his students' experiments
go awry. An experiment gone wrong produces a lot of what
he calls "healthy conversation" about why it went
wrong and what might be done differently. This is what real
science is about, showing students just how much unpredictability-and
creativity-is involved. At the end, they find there are often
more questions to answer than are answered, and a lot more
experiments yet to do.
Too, EI materials
debunk one of the stereotypes most commonly held by high
school students: that scientists are social outcasts, solitary
figures toiling away alone in their laboratories.
One way this happens
is through peer review. In EI projects, students must present
their findings to each other in oral or written form, either
face to face or with students in other classes or schools
via the EI web site. As students respond to each others'
work, they come to realize how much scientists work together
to discuss ideas, share findings, give each other feedback,
and collaborate on joint projects.
One of the most
distinctive aspects of EI materials is that they level the
playing field among students considered "gifted"
in science and those who are struggling. In Johnson's classes,
as in others around the state, students ranging from basic
to advanced placement participate, all from the same starting
"None of them
realize that bacteria eat motor oil, so nobody has an advantage,"
Johnson says of the bioremediation unit.
of the topics-and the fact that results are often reported
to the community-is also a good motivator to those kids who
wouldn't otherwise think of themselves as scientists.
For example, one
EI project tests the safety and effectiveness of a road deicing
product made from the waste of beer and cheese manufacturing,
which has reputedly low environmental impact. The results
of the tests are sent to municipal highway departments. Doing
so, Trautmann says, enhances students' self-esteem and feelings
EI materials are
particularly important to underachieving students-and invaluable
to their teachers-now that New York State requires everyone,
regardless of ability, to pass a Regents-level science course.
"EI units are engaging," Trautmann says. "They
show students how chemistry, biology, and health all fit
together and how these sciences apply to social issues that
The strength of
EI comes from the program's direct tie to the more than 30
Cornell scientists who have made their research available
for adaptation to classroom use.
Bernd Blossey, director of the Biological Control of Nonindigenous
Plant Species Program in the Department of Natural Resources,
is another scientist who gives his time to EI. It is Blossey's
work that so engages Fiero's middle schoolers.
A few summers ago,
Fiero spent three weeks working in Blossey's laboratory where
he learned techniques for rearing purple loosestrife-eating
beetles. Using Blossey's methods, Fiero's students succeeded
in raising several thousand insects in the first year alone.
Then they released them in local wetlands and wildlife refuges.
Each spring and fall the students return to survey the number
of surviving plants.
Blossey gives his
time to EI for both personal and professional reasons. On
the personal side, he says that one of his greatest pleasures
is to see young people's minds mature as they engage in new
experiences. Professionally, it's a way of spreading the
word that biological control is a practical means of addressing
the growing ecological problems caused by invasive plants.
citizens, those who understand the scientific principles
at work, will make the right decisions for managing the natural
areas around where they live," Blossey explains. "So
I need to spread the message. Teachers and their students
are a powerful way of doing that."
Another way that
EI brings innovative science education to the public schools
is through collaboration with the Teacher Education in Agriculture,
Math, and Science program. This five-year program requires
that Cornell students studying to be certified as teachers
complete an undergraduate degree in a scientific specialty,
then earn a master's degree in that specialty or in education.
More than 50 Cornell students have volunteered for EI or
used EI materials during student teaching.
begin their careers with energy, enthusiasm, and terrific
subject-matter insights," says William Carlsen, associate
professor of science education in the College of Agriculture
and Life Sciences, one of the six Cornell professors who
supervise student teachers each year. "EI curriculum
materials provide a means for novice teachers to bring state-of-the-art
science to the classroom. And projects like EI illustrate
the critical role that research universities are playing
in improving precollege science education."
For the past three
years, students in his curriculum design class have taken
the products of EI teacher-scientist collaborations and adapted
and studied their use in New York State classrooms. Three
years ago, the class worked with scientists and educators
from Cornell Cooperative Extension and the High School of
Environmental Studies in New York City. Together, they combined
EI watershed activities and Extension-developed hydroponics
activities into a hands-on school curriculum that engaged
urban students in environmental research, technology, design,
and urban agriculture. After two years of work with upstate
schools, Carlsen's class will returns to New York City again
this spring, collaborating with Extension professionals and
teachers from two more schools on the use of EI computer
tools to study urban ecosystems.
For the next five
years, Carlsen's students will be creating four new curriculum
projects, all in one of the hottest new areas of environmental
science: urban ecosystem science. In this emerging field,
ecosystems modeling and other analytical tools used by biologists
to study natural systems are being harnessed to better understand
and manage cities and their environmental impact on the rest
of the planet. It's a wholly new way to teach science to
urban students get to the ecology section of their science
classes, they get the same curriculum as rural students,
complete with pictures of moose being chased by wolves.
hardly something they can relate to," Carlsen points
out. "Urban ecosystem science begins where the kids
are, with what they know about the incredibly rich system
they live in, which includes all the basic ecosystem functions
of energy, nutrient flow, water cycles, and so forth."
In addition to working in the classroom, Cornell teacher
education students accompany Carlsen to EI workshops that
he offers science teachers. These young men and women play
a very important role, says Jeanne Darling, executive director
of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Delaware County where
Carlsen has taught several workshops using field work and
computer tools to study local water resources.
Bill was teaching, the Cornell students were right there,
at the teachers' sides, helping them with each step,"
Darling says. "The interaction was really stimulating
for students and teachers."
Darling and other
extension educators have been on the forefront of bringing
EI materials to New York's teachers. For the past five years
as many as 10 Delaware County school districts at a time
have attended more than a dozen workshops on topics ranging
from how to gauge the health of a stream to managing zebra
mussels (an invasive aquatic animal) to rearing fish for
local restocking efforts.
motivation to connect teachers with science education resources
stemmed from a concern about how well her county's students
would fare in college.
"I saw that
some kids in some schools weren't always prepared to take
advantage of science courses at the college or university
level, and I wanted to connect science teachers to the resources
and training opportunities at Cornell," Darling explains.
For this reason,
her first workshops were geared toward teachers of high school
students. Over the years she has expanded her offerings to
include middle school teachers.
with Blossey that teaching young people spreads science literacy
to adults in the community as well.
part of the New York City watershed, all families need an
increased understanding of environmental issues," Darling
explains. "People need to learn how to protect the watershed-not
only their own backyard but the water that goes to the city
In the end what
EI boils down to is science as citizenship, says Marianne
Krasny, an associate professor of natural resources and a
faculty leader of EI. "One of our goals is for students
to become better decision makers on scientific matters by
developing a realistic understanding of what the process
of scientific inquiry entails.
She cites press
accounts of differing opinions about the threat of global
warming or the age at which women should begin getting mammograms
as cases in point. If people haven't done research themselves,
they have no way to know that in well-done science, scientists
can honestly disagree, Krasny says.
conduct their own research, they learn that it isn't a clear-cut
process of 'I have a question, I do experiments, and I find
the answer,'" she explains. "Rather, they find
out that decisions get made all along the way; it's a matter
of continuous judgment calls. And that when dealing with
complex problems, there is no one experiment that will give
the right answer."
information on opportunities for participating in EI, see
the Environmental Inquiry's Web site at
contact Nancy Trautmann at firstname.lastname@example.org