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Sustainability News

UREx Blog

August 20, 2018

The URExSRN is a research network of almost 300 practitioners, researchers, students, and postdoctoral fellows working to integrate social, ecological, and technical systems toward the support of urban infrastructure in the midst of climate uncertainties. Network cities and partners participate and share in current research with early learning communities by providing relevant network learnings through K-12 outreach and professional development programs.

Two UREx members have embraced engaging future scientists by providing science curriculum relevant to the UREx mission through programs offered at Arizona State University. Read the exciting, first-hand experiences of graduate fellow, Stephen Elser and research collaborator, Amalia Handler:

The Graduate Partners in Science Education (GPSE) program provided a hands-on approach to bring me into the realm of K-12 education. I went from learning basic pedagogy and designing lesson plans in the fall semester to actually running an after-school science club for a classroom of 30 sixth graders from South Phoenix in the spring. With the help of another graduate student partner, we implemented a variety of lesson plans over the course of the semester, including lessons about the scientific method, all the living things they could find in the schoolyard, and even overfishing (this was a popular activity since it involved actual Goldfish crackers. The lesson I most enjoyed teaching was one about animal behavior, where the students first learned about ectotherms and endotherms. Afterwards, we handed out thermometers and had the students run all around the schoolyard and take measurements to figure out where surface temperature was high and low. Then we set up a flag course where the students had to pretend to be an ectotherm (a lizard, in this case) and reach the end of the flag course without leaving their thermal niche, which required them to seek shade when their thermometers told them they were getting too hot.

At the end of the semester, students chose their favorite lesson and, in groups, made posters highlighting what they learned which they then had the opportunity to present at a science fair hosted at ASU with the other GPSE classes from across the valley. The most popular lesson that they chose was one where we tasked them with filtering muddy water by giving them a variety of supplies. They seemed to enjoy the problem-solving aspect of the lesson and the freedom they were provided in how they could find a solution. While it was challenging to run a club with so many students, it was highly rewarding to interact with so many bright, young minds and to see them have fun while learning. Kids are great scientists since they are naturally very inquisitive, so I think it's incredibly important that after-school science clubs like these exist in order to keep kids engaged and actively participating in science.

When I started at ASU in 2013, I had a strong background in outreach and education that I developed during my undergraduate studies and I was eager to continue that involvement while a graduate student at ASU. As a Science Foundation Arizona fellow during my first year, I worked with Ecology Explorers, a K-12 education program of the Central Arizona Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research program (CAP LTER). Over the year, I created twelve lessons about ecology topics and taught over 250 K-12 children in Phoenix valley schools and communities. The teaching included guest classroom lessons, field trips, and before and after school science clubs. For example, I designed and taught a four-week session on Phoenix’s urban ecology for a group of elementary school children at a transitional housing shelter. For many of these children it was the first time they were tasked with making and testing a prediction and it was a pleasure to facilitate. This type of education was a challenge in that I had to learn how to create lessons that had meaningful takeaways over a 45 minute class period as well as progressions that built concepts over a 4-6 week after-school science club.

The following year, I continued my development in outreach as a Sustainability Science for Sustainable Schools fellow, an NSF G-12 program through CAP LTER. In addition to providing pedagogical training, the program paired me with a local high school to work with teachers on their sustainability initiatives throughout the curriculum, campus, and community. I helped facilitate the school’s sustainability club, called the Eco-Ambassadors. Over the course of the year, the group started and managed an Air Quality Flag program in partnership with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. In addition, the Eco-Ambassadors filmed a three-part telenovela-style drama centered on a son trying to convince his family to live more sustainably through waste reduction and recycling. The series even included an acoustic guitar accompaniment to the opening credits played by one of the students in the club! The five-minute videos aired at the start of school to the whole student body. This project taught me that students are wonderfully creative if provided with resources and support.

Though no longer required through fellowships, I continue to participate in education programs that serve students outside of ASU. I am entering my third year of volunteering with the ASU Prison Education Program where, with a team of ~15 graduate and undergraduate students, I develop and teach an introductory biology course offered to inmates at a state prison. Last year I developed and taught the first ever lab in the course, a challenge given the heavy restrictions on materials that can be brought into the prison. Teaching with this program has been especially valuable to my development. Because all lessons are co-developed and taught with another volunteer and each lesson is demoed for the entire teaching team, my teaching has improved dramatically with the constant feedback from an academically diverse team of teaches. For this and because you get the opportunity to get others excited about your area of research, I encourage everyone to get involved with an outreach program.