Natalie Bray is one of our first year MA students, she’s doing great work on plant ecophysiology and taking full advantage of a field station just an hour north of Columbia’s main campus.
Exploring plant science with Black Rock Forest and Newburgh Free Academy
One of the main reasons why I decided to pursue my masters in Conservation Biology at Columbia University was to learn more about science education and expand my understanding and abilities to become an effective communicator not only to the scientific research community but also to younger students. When I arrived at Columbia, I was almost immediately introduced to Black Rock Forest (www.blackrockforest.org), a research station located in Cornwall, NY about an hour outside of New York City. Initially, my focus was on developing an interesting masters thesis project based on different on-going projects at the Forest and I ended up building a relationship with the forest director, Dr. William Schuster and the forest’s education director, Dr. Jeff Kidder. Once my master’s thesis project was sorted out (I will be writing about this project in a few weeks on this blog), Dr. Jeff Kidder presented me with an opportunity involving creating and teaching a mini-course in plant development for high school students. At first I was really excited about creating my own course and working with high school students but then I was overcome with the amount of work I would have to do in order to prepare for this. It turns out I was right to worry about the amount of work but this project introduced me to different problems and opportunities involved with working with young scientists.
I started teaching at Newburgh Free Academy in December and the course is still on-going with student final presentations on their research projects at the end of March. Dr. Kidder had developed a couple of experiments that he wanted to test with this class and I came up for a few of my own. The experiments we decided on had never really been done in a formal setting so we were gambling a little bit with the outcomes. My first meeting with the students was positive: after a few bumps in the road with the biology teacher we would be working with and some minor changes to our game plan, I was able to present the course to about 20 students. My estimates is that about 1/3 of the students who have participated in the course are over-achieving, college-bound, AP Biology students who are looking to boost their resumes (which was me only about 6 years ago) whereas the remainder of the students were there to get extra-credit as they were failing their current biology course. This presented a whole new dimension to my work: getting the student excited about science and doing their own research project.
The experiments were loosely based on varying physical, biological and environmental conditions such as light, soil and starch while measuring the growth of the red oak seedlings. The agreement we made with the biology teacher was that this would require some independent work and accountability from the students. They would be responsible for maintaining the red oak seedlings that they would be growing from acorns and they would be responsible for collecting data and presenting their results in a poster to the whole class. Most students understood the concepts of the scientific method and what their hypothesis was and how they would present their results.
Like any scientific experiment, there are some problems that require experimental design modifications and some lessons about not watering your plants, which leads to dead seedlings. Though I was slightly disappointed that some of the students were not taking care of their experiments, I think to some extent they benefited from seeing the direct results of being careless about one’s experiment. I didn’t want to give these students the impression that experiments usually don’t work out the first time you try or the second or the third but I wanted to instill the idea of intelligent experimental design and the need for modifications. At this stage, it’s important to keep up positive thoughts about science and the power of successful experiments. How do you keep up enthusiasm in high school students for science? For me, the intrigue of research and the fun of designing experiments is enough but are we doing enough to keep high school students excited about science? Are we showing students the growing field of research being done in every single sub discipline of STEM? In order to develop the next generation of scientists, more needs to be done to link new, fascinating research with high school students and get them thinking about what possible contributions they can make to science in the near future.