Sept. 7-13, 2001
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High school students aid U.Va. research
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High school students aid U.Va. research
Photo by Stephanie Gross

By Fariss Samarrai

"Where are you going?” science teacher Tom Bonniwell asked.

While the other students were moving together on a generally eastward course, one student followed his own course, wandering around near some bushes by a trash bin.

“I’m not sure. I guess this way,” the boy answered.

“Let me give you a hint,” Bonniwell said. “You’re moving in the wrong direction. You might try following your classmates.”

“Well, I thought maybe I was right and they were wrong,” the student said, hurrying toward the group.

When it comes to land navigation, original thinking could get you lost. In this case, the students were only looking for a cooler of sodas hidden in the woods. A few weeks later, they used their newly learned land navigation skills to locate and mark points of environmental interest.

The students in Bonniwell’s environmental sciences class at Northampton High School in Eastville, Va., were learning land navigation and ecology with the help of their teacher and faculty from U.Va.’s department of environmental sciences. They are part of a new program that links the department’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) project on the Eastern Shore with the high school. The program, called the Schoolyard LTER, is designed to help the students build knowledge of their local environment through not only science learning in the classroom, but also real-world science studies in the field. The program brings students directly into the research process.

“U.Va. is providing equipment to the high school — from computers to handheld global positioning system (GPS) units — as well as expertise and training for both the students and their teachers,” said Randy Carlson, LTER site manager. “The students and their teachers are likewise helping U.Va. research by providing ecological observations that are scientifically useful for determining long-term changes in the environment.”

Environmental sciences faculty study barrier island geology and coastal ecology on the Eastern Shore through the National Science Foundation-funded LTER. The project is one of 24 LTERs around the nation conducting long-term environmental studies. Scientists at Virginia’s LTER are monitoring sea level rise, groundwater flow rates, marsh growth and erosion, bay water chemistry, fish and shellfish populations, vegetation and mammal and bird populations.

With $15,000 per year in new funding from NSF for the Schoolyard LTER project, Carlson is assisting in two science classes at Northampton High. He also leads field trips to barrier islands and mainland research sites along with other U.Va. faculty members and graduate students.

“We instruct the high school students in the proper techniques for making meaningful observations of events occurring in the environment,” he said.

This summer, U.Va. faculty members also taught a graduate course in environmental sciences field methods for science teachers at Northampton. The teachers are able to apply those credits toward a graduate degree and are now better prepared to instruct their students in practical field science methods.

“This kind of hands-on work can really charge up the students,” said Bonniwell.
Northampton students are learning to use the GPS to locate and mark potentially useful sites in the field. A student can mark a dead tree near a tidal creek, for example, which might be an indicator of salt intrusion from rising sea levels.

Students and scientists can then return to the site periodically and see if other trees are dying. By having this kind of data stored over the course of many years, scientists can evaluate trends occurring in the environment, whether natural or human-caused. This is the whole point of long-term environmental research.
Students also are testing water chemistry in tidal creeks and learning to classify the plants they observe.

“There’s not a lot of career opportunity on the Eastern Shore,” said Carlson, who grew up there and later earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia Wesleyan College. “A lot of kids here figure they’ll finish high school and get a job working with their backs. They have trouble understanding how school is relevant to their lives. But when we put a GPS unit in their hands and tell them this will help you find an oyster bar, they become real interested. And for the kids who want to go to college, this kind of learning can help them get there.”

The idea for the Schoolyard LTER came from Bruce Hayden, chair of the department of environmental sciences and director of the Eastern Shore LTER, who, at the time, was serving a two-year assignment as director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology in Washington, D.C.

“A few of us had a new notion that local schools around the country should be involved in research activities with universities,” he said. “NSF liked the idea and agreed to fund it. Today almost all of the LTER sites nationwide have a schoolyard program. This puts the research enterprise in the hands of students and allows faculty to reach the young students who may someday join our universities. This works for everyone.”


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