Classroom Technology

Technology Links Students to Fieldwork

By Sean Cavanagh — September 28, 2009 7 min read
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Every school year, teachers across the country set out to make the work of scientists understandable and appealing to students, who might otherwise find it indecipherable and dull.

This fall, a New Hampshire educator was helped in that mission by a group of scientists—working from a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Those scientists were conducting research in the Phoenix Islands, a remote collection of atolls and reefs in the central Pacific. During breaks, they kept a blog on their work, which Julianne Mueller-Northcott’s students followed every day. Her students e-mailed questions to the marine scientists, who responded when they had time and a working satellite link.

That arrangement is just one of many aimed at connecting students through technology with scientists doing research in the field, an increasingly common practice in schools. Museums, colleges, federal agencies, and individual teachers have become more adept at putting students in direct contact with scientists, even those working in very remote locations—like aboard the NAI’A in the central Pacific, 6,000 miles away.

A manta ray swims near divers on an expedition to the Pacific from which scientists communicated with students.

Ms. Mueller-Northcott likens her students’ reaction to the expedition to “the Cousteau effect,” a reference to Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The late French ecologist’s marine exploits were made into televised series, documentaries, and films that captivated the public and helped introduce a broad audience to ocean life.

The New Hampshire teacher began her marine-biology elective classes this month by asking students to read the latest blog entries from the Phoenix Islands voyage, which was sponsored by the New England Aquarium, in Boston. She saw it as a way to get the teenagers enthusiastic about that day’s class, and the course overall.

Ms. Mueller-Northcott, who teaches at Souhegan High School, in Amherst, N.H., uses the blog entries to begin discussions and to prompt students to record journal observations about the scientists’ expedition. She also uses the site to pose experimental-design questions to the teenagers: How could you study humans’ impact on coral reefs? Where would you do your research? What data and equipment would you need?

“It’s so easy,” Ms. Mueller-Northcott explained. “It’s about starting the course: How do scientists do what they do?”

Fighting the Stereotype

The scientists left the Phoenix Islands for Fiji, the final stop on their voyage, last week. The New England Aquarium, which helped underwrite the expedition, has arranged to have scientists on several research ventures blog and post photos online. Those sites are widely used by K-12 teachers and students, said Tony LaCasse, an aquarium spokesman.

Around the country, scientists and education-advocacy groups have become ever more intent on making scientific studies and careers more attractive to young people, particularly underrepresented groups such as women and minorities. One goal is to quash the stereotype of the scientist conducting obscure research in dreary isolation.

To correct that view, numerous organizations have for years sponsored print and online resources offering biographical information and testimonials from scientists explaining what they do in simple and colorful terms.

Online exchanges between students and scientists, like the Phoenix Islands project, attempt to make that point in a different way, by allowing students to reach out to scientists in more of a real-time manner as they go about their work.

When Ms. Mueller-Northcott’s students tapped into the Phoenix Islands blog, they found scientists’ first-person descriptions of topics they cover, such as coral-reef ecology and damage caused to them by pollution. They saw underwater photos and descriptions of abundant aquatic life—gray reef sharks, moray eels, giant clams, bohar snapper, and barracudas. They read descriptions of scientific processes, like making observations and collecting data. And they found musings on life at sea: how to avoid the bends while diving, how to guard against infection, what the scientists are eating, and the researchers’ offhand reflections—on a rare species of bird or fish, or a glimpse of the Southern Cross in the night sky.

One of the regular bloggers aboard the NAI’A was Randi D. Rotjan, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium. Ms. Rotjan, along with expedition leader Gregory S. Stone and others, provided observations on dives and visits to remote islands and reefs. She answered student questions and took photos.

Ms. Rotjan, 32, says she enjoys explaining her work to the public on behalf of the aquarium. The blog allows her to do that in a new way, she said in an e-mail, sent to Education Week as the crew neared the end of its voyage.

“Most scientists are also educators,” she wrote. “We educate either through traditional academia, or via outreach efforts like this.”

After a while, Ms. Rotjan began thinking about the blog “on every diving stop,” she recalled, as a way to “collect my thoughts and compose a meaningful story.”

Marajka Knight, a 15-year-old in Ms. Mueller-Northcott’s class, was a regular reader.

“It makes you feel like you’re there,” she said. “You get to talk to someone who’s actually doing what you’re learning about.”

Efforts to connect practicing scientists with classroom students are decades old, said Alan J. Friedman, who directed the New York Hall of Science for more than 20 years. As far back as the 1980s, he recalls scientists corresponding with students by mail, answering questions and posing challenges to young people.

Since then, technology’s evolution has allowed schools to connect with scientists in myriad ways, such as blogs, e-mail, video webcasts, and live interactive events, Mr. Friedman noted. Yet those pairings have not proved as successful as they might have, despite technology’s advances, he argued. The biggest barrier to forging those scientist-to-student links is scientists’ view that such activities take time away from their research, he said. Online communication with K-12 students is faster for scientists than it was years ago, he said, “but not that much faster.”

“Scientists are very jealous of their time,” Mr. Friedman said. “It subtracts from the life-total of time spent on science.”

And while many scientists are natural communicators, others struggle to explain their research in plain language, said Mr. Friedman, who now consults for museums and other organizations on science education issues.

Still, even a relatively small investment of time can have a big payoff, he said. The value for students does not come from scientists’ answering factual questions—that can be covered in class—but rather from the excitement of seeing a scientist at work: struggling, making breakthroughs, documenting joys and frustrations.

“That is suspense,” Mr. Friedman observed. “That’s irreplaceable.”

Federal Projects

A number of federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, support projects that connect students with scientists in the field through technology. Another agency active on that front is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which earlier this month established a K-12 link during its field tests of land rovers designed to be used on the surface of the moon.

During those tests, more than 700 students taking part in a conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, in Pasadena, Calif., were able to ask questions in a live chat with NASA scientists and engineers, watch video clips of the tests, and hear presentations by agency staff.

Heather Paul, a NASA engineer at the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, who helped lead those activities, said the rewards from scientists connecting with a broad student audience were obvious.

“We need to work hard to dispel the myths,” she said, that “we’re brainiacs who sit in the lab all day.” In science, “you have to be passionate about what you want to do. ... It’s not just a job, it’s a way of life.”

That message cannot always be conveyed through textbooks and written materials, acknowledged Ms. Mueller-Northcott, the New Hampshire teacher. Written accounts of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking 19th-century voyage aboard the Beagle, for instance, do not seem to hold the same magic for today’s teenagers as they do for her, she said.

While the teacher finds accounts of the evolutionary biologist’s journey “fascinating,” she admits she’s “never had the same buy-in from students.”

Yet the voyage of the NAI’A, she said, amounts to a “modern-day trip on the Beagle.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2009 edition of Education Week as Technology Links Students to Fieldwork

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