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Real Scientific Inquiry Stimulates Young Minds in New York's Schools

By Metta Winter, Cornell Focus Magazine

Searching for 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 be true?

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.

"This process 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."

Seventh graders 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.

"Each spring 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.
"Students are 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.)

Laboratory materials 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 place.

"None of them realize that bacteria eat motor oil, so nobody has an advantage," Johnson says of the bioremediation unit.
The practicality 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 of credibility.

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 interest them."

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.

Assistant Professor 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.

"Only informed 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.

"Our students 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 city kids.

Typically, when 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.
"That's 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.
"While 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.

Darling's initial 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.

Darling agrees with Blossey that teaching young people spreads science literacy to adults in the community as well.

"Since we're 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 as well."

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.

"When students 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."

For information on opportunities for participating in EI, see the Environmental Inquiry's Web site at


or contact Nancy Trautmann at nmt2@cornell.edu



Copyright 2006 CSIP, Cornell University