school students aid U.Va. research
by Stephanie Gross
are you going? science teacher Tom Bonniwell asked.
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.
not sure. I guess this way, the boy answered.
me give you a hint, Bonniwell said. Youre moving
in the wrong direction. You might try following your classmates.
I thought maybe I was right and they were wrong, the student
said, hurrying toward the group.
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
students in Bonniwells 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 departments
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.
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.
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 Virginias
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.
$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
instruct the high school students in the proper techniques for
making meaningful observations of events occurring in the environment,
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.
kind of hands-on work can really charge up the students,
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.
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.
not a lot of career opportunity on the Eastern Shore, said
Carlson, who grew up there and later earned a bachelors
degree in biology from Virginia Wesleyan College. A lot
of kids here figure theyll 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.
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 Foundations Division
of Environmental Biology in Washington, D.C.
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.