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.

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...