Engaging Students in Authentic Scientific Work

John Dewey observed that if you “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.” He also noticed that engaging students in solving problems resulted in a quality of learning that is different than reading a textbook: The learning is more likely to “stick” and be something that students can put to use.

Schoodic Institute has been helping schools engage students in doing science related to resource conservation and management for more than a decade. We do this not only because it results in powerful learning about science, but also because putting students to work on resource-related problems makes the issues real in ways that go far beyond just reading or hearing about them. Even more important, students come away with a sense that these are problems that they can help address, not just things to feel anxious about.

An Example

We have learned a lot in ten years of organizing collaborations between teachers, students, and scientists. We are now putting that learning to use in a project that brings Sumner Memorial High School (our local school) together with the Department of Marine Resources (DMR), shellfish committees from Gouldsboro and Steuben, and the local shellfish warden. The students are repurposing an abandoned lobster pound in Jones Cove for use as a clam research site where they will be able to regulate the time that clams are submerged in order to study clam growth and predation by green crabs. Students will place crab traps inside and outside the pound along the tidal gradient to collect data about crab population density, reproduction cycles, and activity at different locations along the tidal gradient.

Once our fall fieldwork season winds down, students will analyze the data they have collected and will present their findings at a number of venues. They will also use their analyses and the questions that emerge from them as they collaborate with shellfish committees and the DMR to design new experiments for the 2018 clam growth season. Each year’s work will build on the previous year’s data and analyses.

What is especially important about this project is that the DMR and the shellfish committees could not do this work if the students were not involved. This is not just adults trying to help students out, but is a real collaboration between the school, the towns, and the DMR to do work that none of them could accomplish on their own. Put simply, it is authentic science that matters.

Expanding Beyond One School

The DMR eastern area biologist who is participating with the school in this project works with 18 other towns and shellfish committees eastward from here to the Bay of Fundy. She has two counterparts in the DMR who work in midcoast Maine and southern Maine. Together, they work with 71 towns that stretch from Kittery to Lubec along the Maine coast. Although our work with our local school and towns is aimed at providing learning opportunities for local students and resource management assistance to the towns right around the Schoodic Institute, the project is also intended to provide Schoodic Institute with the tools and know how to expand this program along the Maine coast. We want to provide many more students with the opportunity to find out that science is something that they can do in addition to something to read about, and we want to provide many more towns, through work with their own local schools, with the extra hands and minds they need to manage their coastal resources.

Learning by Doing: Engaging Students in Authentic Scienctific Work  – Contact Bill Zoellick •  bzoellick@SchoodicInstitute.org

Follow the progress of the entire project in our news posts below.

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