Kirsten Bosnak
Kansas Biological Survey

Kansas science teachers take lessons from KU into classrooms

Fri, 09/14/2018

LAWRENCE — As the new school year begins, 11 high school science teachers across Kansas are stepping into their classrooms with new knowledge and skills, gained at the University of Kansas, to share with their students. They spent a week together this summer at the KU Field Station, just north of Lawrence, working with KU scientists to learn about current research that links to K-12 science standards.

The teachers — the first group to benefit from the five-year program — represented school districts spanning the breadth of the state, from Overland Park to Dodge City. Through the program, known as the Ecosystems of Kansas Summer Institute, they immersed themselves in field ecology and GIS mapping projects.

“The best takeaway from this week has been all the brainstorming, working with other teachers and being excited about science again,” said Marylee Ramsay, who teaches biology, honors biology and ecology at Goddard High School. “I picked up so much I can use in experiments in my classroom and hope to use parts of what we learned from all the researchers.”

The institute, funded by a National Science Foundation grant-within-a-grant, was developed and overseen by Peggy Schultz, a Kansas Biological Survey researcher and a faculty member in KU’s Environmental Studies Program. Schultz said the goals for the program were to encourage scientific and ecological literacy, to provide support for teachers and to encourage students in their education.

“An important part of this program is to let teachers know they’re appreciated,” Schultz said. “They’re expected to do so much work, and we want to help them provide opportunities for the next generation. We want to link what we’re doing in basic research with their work with high school students, to promote understanding of the scientific method at every academic level.”

Schultz said the program promoted higher education in a broad way — encouraging critical thinking skills and a basic understanding of research. In addition, it could encourage students to notice and appreciate the natural world in their midst.

"Our lives are completely embedded in our environment: the functioning ecologic system around us and the services it provides us,” Schultz said. “I think it’s important for students to know what organisms we share with our state and our planet. If they don’t know what’s there, they won’t know what’s being lost. If they do, they may choose to do something to maintain it.”

Through the institute, the teachers spent mornings outdoors at various sites, including the Field Station’s Cross Reservoir, Rockefeller Native Prairie and other sites, as well as a nearby stream. Studies focused on three areas: ecology of plant-soil fungal interactions, aquatic invertebrate ecology and GIS mapping. In the afternoons, they worked indoors at the Field Station’s Armitage Education Center, developing inquiry-based curriculum for their classrooms.

This was the first year of the Summer Institute, and plans are underway to continue each of the next four years. Participants are selected through an application process, with information available at the institute’s website.

The institute is part of an NSF EPSCoR (Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) project funded through a $20 million grant announced a year ago. The NSF project, “Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS),” RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006, is a collaboration among five Kansas universities. It is focused on the beneficial activity of microorganisms in the water, plants and soil. The findings could have key implications for issues such as agricultural sustainability, soil fertility and water quality.

“NSF EPSCoR-funded studies this large include broader impact initiatives that bring immediate benefits each year in the form of education, as with the Summer Institute,” said Rosemary Blum, outreach, education and diversity director for Kansas NSF EPSCoR at KU. “This MAPS grant includes seven education and outreach components, and the institute is just one of those programs.”

Teachers who participated in the Summer Institute in 2018:

  • Abby Adams, De Soto High School;
  • Derek Berg, Shawnee Mission South High School;
  • Jake Bjostad, Medicine Lodge High School;
  • Jeff Calhoun, Dodge City High School;
  • Andrew Davis, Olathe East High School;
  • Amy Hammett, Maize High School;
  • Andrew Ising, Baldwin High School;
  • Pam Lucas, Skyline High School;
  • Marylee Ramsay, Goddard High School;
  • Bill Welch, Derby High School;
  • Terry (TJ) Williams, Hutchinson High School.

Participating KU researchers were as follows:

Aquatic study group leaders:

  • Jerry deNoyelles, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and deputy director, Kansas Biological Survey;
  • Ted Harris, research assistant professor, Kansas Biological Survey.

Terrestrial study group leaders:

  • Helen Alexander, professor of ecology & evolutionary biology;
  • Jim Bever, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior scientist, Kansas Biological Survey;
  • Peggy Schultz.

GIS study group leaders:

  • Steven Obenhaus, master teacher, KU Center for STEM Learning;
  • Dana Peterson; associate researcher, Kansas Biological Survey.
  • Next Generation Science Standards/Science and Engineering Practices (NGSS/SEP) strategies discussion leader: Michael Ralph, master teacher, KU Center for STEM Learning.

The Kansas NSF EPSCoR office created a video telling the story of the group’s experience.

The MAPS project’s principal investigator is Kristin Bowman-James, KU Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. Four other professors lead and supervise specific parts of the research: Jim Bever; Sharon Billings, Dean's Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey; and K-State professors Chuck Rice and Walter Dodds.

The Kansas Biological Survey, a KU designated research center, was established at KU in 1911. It houses a variety of environmental research labs and remote sensing/GIS programs in Takeru Higuchi Hall and the West District greenhouse. It also manages the 3,700-acre KU Field Station, a site for study in the sciences, arts and humanities.

Top photo: Marylee Ramsay teaches at Goddard High School.

Right photo: The group gathered each day at the KU Field Station’s Armitage Education Center.

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