This educational collaboration between Washington University's Tyson Research Center and the Missouri Botanical Garden's Shaw Nature Reserve is designed to engage St. Louis area high school students in scientifically-based exploration of the natural world. Linked programs of field training (SIFT) and field research (TERF) provide teenagers with experiences that realistically reflect research in environmental biology. Participating teens learn a variety of field investigation skills and then have the opportunity to put those new skills to work assisting career scientists with real research projects.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tis the Season to be Report Writing...

The official year one progress report on our ISE project is due to the National Science Foundation on November 30. So, obviously my thoughts are consumed by this right now!

Report writing can be tedious, as you have to find a way to pull a year's worth of programming data together. But, it is a fantastic challenge and it gives you the ability to see the big picture. All of the plans coming together. All of the hard work paying off.

Looking back over the previous blog entries has really been helpful while working on the report! I wish there had been more time for me to capture our thoughts in this way. I can really see the holes in between the blog entries at the end of the summer and during this fall. Now that I have experienced the blog on the project as an effective tool for thought process capture, I will try to make a pronounced effort to keep up.

(Yeah, right. We'll see...)

Friday, October 24, 2008

GIS Training at Wash U

The SIFTers spent some time indoors for a change during the weekend of August 9th and 10th. Three separate 3-hour GIS training sessions were offered in the computer lab at the Natural Sciences Learning Center in the Biology Department at Washington University.

Dr. Bob Coulter, director of the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, instructed the SIFTers on the basics of geographical information systems and showed how they can be useful in environmental research.

SIFT Saturday in September

So, it's been quite a while since I blogged. Life has a way of happening, you know? Anyway, I'll try to catch up. Those SIFTers have been quite busy!

Saturday, September 27 was our first all-SIFTer event and we brought teens from both summer sessions together at Shaw Nature Reserve. Aileen pulled out all sorts of things from her bag of tricks (a rubber chicken?!) and everyone got acquainted.

The afternoon was spent out in the field and we could not have asked for better weather. These SIFTers have some mad field skillz!

Monarch butterfly tagging...

Seed collecting...

Marking GPS points...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

NSF ISE PI Summit, July 25-26

My trip to Washington, D.C. for the NSF Informal Science Education PI Summit was fantastic!

Many thanks to Ellen McCallie and John Baek of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) for putting on a great conference. I learned, I met, I networked, and I came home ready to plunge back into the project.

The Informal Science Education program has been around for 25 years and has sponsored over 1000 projects. The ISE budget is currently $65 million and supports 200 projects. Here is how our project fits into the NSF hierarchy.

National Science Foundation
Directorate for Education and Human Resources
Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings
Lifelong Learning Cluster
Informal Science Education
Youth and Community Programs (Sylvia James, program officer)
"Making Natural Connections" project (us)

The most important piece of information I picked up from the meeting was that we should be consulting the recently published NSF ISE guidelines for evaluation of ISE projects. It is called "Framework for Evaluating Impacts of ISE Projects" and can be downloaded from the front page of the CAISE website. (The ISE community is referring to it as "The Framework" for short.) I would like to schedule a meeting in September with Lydia and Kathi to go over the document in detail.

Another bit of important information is that the ISE program has a team of evaluators from Westat working on a Project Monitoring System. (Yes, PMS. This got a big laugh from the audience.) All new ISE projects, ours included, will need to be reporting in both FastLane and the PMS. The PMS was recently tested with 50 projects and will be rolling out to all of the projects soon. (I am to expect a FedEx package from Westat with all of the details.) The bad news is that many found the PMS to be a bit counterintuitive to use. The good news is that if we use The Framework to design our evaluation strategy, then this will lead to easy data entry into the PMS.

We should also be on the lookout for the forthcoming National Research Council (NRC) Report on Learning Science in Informal Environments. It should be available on-line in September and will be titled "LSIE: Learning Science in Informal Environments."

(So, on the administrative front, it looks like I've got my reading material and need to start synthesizing it into the project...)

In addition to the general sessions, I attended some discussion groups and visited as many posters as possible during the Project Showcase sessions. It was amazing to see the diversity of projects that are currently funded. Television shows, video games, interactive exhibits, afterschool programs, etc.

It appears that our project is somewhat unique in that it is based at a university and it targets teens. (The majority of ISE projects are targeted at children or the public and based at science museums or other informal science institutions.) So I made sure to connect with those people who have similar projects and hope to stay in contact. I'm especially interested in talking further with the director of a teen-targeted and teen-run scientific cafe project. Her model could be useful with the SIFT and TERF teens.

The discussion on "Environmental Literacy: Taking Action through ISE" gave me an idea about modeling conservation and sustainability within the SIFT and TERF programs and then attemping to track the possible transformational effect on the teen participants. How do we get inspiration to turn into action? Of course, the real question is "Can we actually measure this?" Need to ask Kathi... And get a hold of the National Guidelines for Excellence in Environmental Education...

SIFT Session 2 Day 5

The final day of SIFT Session 2 was a bit different than the final day of SIFT Session 1. The weather cooperated this time and we were actually able to get into the field for the ant behavior experiment.

But first, the day started with breakfast in the Assembly Building.

And then each group shared their data from the terrestrial ecosystems investigations of the previous day.

It was very rewarding seeing the SIFTers come to their own definitions of prairies, glades, and woodlands based on actual scientific data!

The SIFTers had heard all week about Dr. James Trager being an expert on ants, and now they got a chance to see him in action. They were introduced to the fascinating world of ants with a NOVA program hosted by E.O. Wilson and then became familiar with the common ants of Missouri.

The ant behavior experiment involved baiting specific spots on the ground with bits of pecan sandies cookies or tuna, and then making observations of ant interactions as they arrived on the scene.

The final field challenge of the week was a hunt for the afternoon snack. Three groups of SIFTers each headed out with a different starting clue. If they successfully followed their set of clues then they eventually found toppings for ice cream sundaes. Unfortunately, the clues were not as easy as we thought and we had to guide the last group in so that we could start eating!

SIFT Session 2 Day 4

Day 4 started with a bit of additional excitement as the SIFTers arrived with their overnight gear. Knowing that they would be spending the night in the lodges definitely added a spark to the day's experiences.

The first activity was finishing up the aquatic investigations data posters from the day before. Each group presented their findings and then we analyzed the data sets to see if there were trends for the lentic (still water) and lotic (flowing water) sites.

The rest of the day was spent on terrestrial investigations, similar to those on SIFT Session 1 Day 4. However, this time around the SIFTers were not given much background information on the different ecosystems. Rather than have an introductory presentation on prairies, glades, and woodlands, each small group conducted scientific investigations of each terrestrial area, and used this information as the basis for their knowledge of the area type. This inquiry-based approach allowed them to compare/contrast different data sets, draw their own conclusions, and then take ownership of the new knowledge. And, not surprisingly, it worked out really well!

Discussing observations of different plant growth forms

Prairie sampling

Glade sampling

After a much needed afternoon break, the SIFTers had dinner with some visiting field ecologists from Tyson Research Center and a paleoethnobotanist. The teens did a great job of interacting with the scientists and were able to get some insights into careers in field science.

The evening ended with a night hike, black light insect show, and s'mores around the campfire.


I apologize profusely for neglecting this blog for so long. As soon as SIFT Session 2 finished up, I was swept up into the crazy-busy world of summer programming in Washington University Science Outreach.

So, after a trip to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to teach a genomics workshop for biology teachers, four weeks of the Life Sciences for a Global Community institute, and a trip to D.C. for the NSF ISE PI Summit, I'm finally able to catch my breath and spend some time updating the blog.

Stay tuned...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

SIFT Session 2 Day 3

Today the rising sun quickly burned through the morning cloud cover, causing a rise in temperature and some standard St. Louis summer weather conditions. Hot. Hazy. Humid.

The SIFTers started their day with a discussion of the previous night's reading. They did a great job of deciphering the old-fashioned language of Lewis and Clark and debated the correct course of action when coming to a river fork. One SIFTer suggested sending scout groups up both forks and then regrouping to compare notes. This is in fact what Lewis and Clark decided to do! They collected more evidence (data) before settling on a single course of action (making a conclusion)...

The schedule for Session 2 Day 3 was similar to that for Session 1 Day 3, the "all day in the field" day for investigations into aquatic ecosystems.

The morning was spent using new skills to assess the abiotic and biotic conditions at Wolf Run Lake.

"I notice..."

"I wonder..."

Observations of pond organisms during biotic sampling

Dr. James Trager handles a very large Fisher spider

Gently setting everything free...

After cleaning up the gear from the morning, a ride in the Wilderness Wagon ended with lunch at the Trail House.

Catching a ride on the Wilderness Wagon

The afternoon was spent on SIFTer-designed assessments of the conditions at Brush Creek. Small groups set up their own investigations modeled on the morning activities. They completed both abiotic and biotic samplings, and compared/contrasted their results with those from the pond.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

SIFT Session 2 Day 2

Day 2 of SIFT Session 2 brought an overcast sky and high humidity. We kept a close eye on the weather radar map as a storm front headed up the I-44 corridor.

The schedule of activities was almost identical to that on Day 2 of Session 1, with the exception of much improved opening activities that kept the sleepy SIFTers awake.

Tim led a discussion of the reading and journal prompt from the night before, and there was quite a thoughtful response from the group. One SIFTer wondered, "What was going on at the time to make the author write this way?" Good question!

Lydia led the teens through an expansion of the SIFT concept map based on their reflections from the previous afternoon. They worked together to group activities from Day 1 into the categories of collaboration, skills, and content.

Ah, the power of the concept map...

The isopod inquiry activity brought smiles to the group

Creating a good dichotomous key for a few simple leaves is not as easy as it sounds!

We finally had a bit of a downpour during lunch, but no winds or significant thunder and lightning. And nothing kept the SIFTers from heading out to the field in the afternoon!

SIFT Session 2 Day 1

Wow, what a different group of teens! Where the first group was fairly quiet and contemplative on Day 1, this group of 22 has verbally engaged with the SIFT instructors and each other from the moment they met at the various bus stops. Very different group dynamic...

The activities for Session 2 Day 1 followed the same schedule as during Session 1 Day 1. However there was the addition of more information on ticks (and ticks in viewing boxes!) during the morning outdoor safety session (Tim) and the addition of whole group GPS unit training and practice (Tim/Lydia) before the afternoon "challenge."

There was also a change in teaching strategy with the use of concept maps during the introduction to field biology (James) and during the afternoon wrap up (Lydia).

GPS practice

Something about putting Red in the Shed???

Learning the Shaw Nature Reserve map

Finding their way...

Checking in with Lydia on the radio

Group listening/communication puzzle challenge

Interestingly, the afternoon navigational challenge from the Dana Brown Center to the Trail House was particularly challenging for these SIFTers. One group became lost early in the trek, retraced their route, and then went off their assigned route to make it to the Trail House in time. Two groups had to abandon their field exploration tasks to make it in on time. And Tim had to go out to lead another group in. There were many lessons learned about collaboration and navigation skills, but all agreed that it was fun.