by Craig Wilson, Ph.D.
Texas A&M, College of Science
How can we enhance the ability of teachers to provide high quality STEM education for all students? How can we help teachers be more effective and able to re¬awaken the excitement of students who are born with innate curiosity and are renowned for always asking questions to the point of distraction:
"Who?", "Why?", "What?", "Where?", and "When?".
One under-utilized resource are the United States Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ ARS) research laboratories. There are six of these within Texas: Bushland, College Station, Houston, Kerrville, Lubbock and Temple and, more than ninety nationwide that address all disciplines associated with Agricultural Science from Entomology to Engineering Technology. They are willing to open their doors to help augment teachers' science content knowledge and to help their use of inquiry-based science activities.
Agriculture is such a huge and essential enterprise that, through their teachers, the students' involvement in and an appreciation for scientific research may encourage them to consider science when they go to college. These research laboratories are world class research facilities with a national infrastructure and great educational out¬reach potential. Your nearest research laboratory may be found at the following url: http://www.ars.usda.gov/pandp/locations.htm
Vision and Mission
The Vision of the USDA/ ARS is to lead America to a better future through agricultural research and information. lt's Mission is to conduct research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority and to provide information access and dissemination to: ensure high quality, safe food, and other agricultural products; assess the nutritional needs of Americans; sustain a competitive agricultural economy; enhance the natural resource base and environment; and provide economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities, and society as a whole.
Educational outreach is not a primary function of this branch of the USDA agency but it is increasingly seen as an essential component. The world's population is increasing exponentially and needs to be fed, making development of the next generation of researchers critical. The USDA/ARS laboratories' are willing and able to help support teachers by involving them in scientific research and providing access to world class research scientists on their doorstep.
They hope to empower the teachers by increasing their science content knowledge and to support them in their classroom endeavors to improve the quality of the STEM education that will engage all of their students. This may also help in teacher retention by reconnecting and reinvigorating them through interaction with research scientists and cutting edge research programs. The report by the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) hypothesized that exposure to hands-on research would encourage students to maintain an interest in science even if they do not eventually pursue a career in science (2005t p.6). Lederman and Malcom (2009) suggest that improvements in Science Education need to start locally and USDA/ARS labs nestle within communities that, if utilized by science teachers can have an immediate impact in school districts surrounding them.
By providing this service, the USDA/ARS hopes to encourage science teachers to become involved in scientific research that allows their students to engage in hands-on, inquiry driven learning that will improve academic performance and interest in science. It is available to all grade levels. Tai et aI., (2006) in their survey work found that "We should pay close attention to children's early exposure to science at the middle and even younger grades" (p.1144). So, the opportunity exists for teachers to become familiar with some of the research taking place at their local USDA/ AR5 laboratory with an emphasis on the research scientists sharing their research methodologies. It is important to note here, as recommended by a National Research Council Report (2003), that educational outreach is viewed positively when the scientists are evaluated within USDA/AR5 agency.
It is important that the teachers feel comfortable in the research environment so, great pains are taken to ensure that the mentor scientists can communicate well and that is one of the key features of the criteria for their selection (Pfund et al., 2006) rather than simply a willingness to participate. The teachers will be helped to become familiar with the research programs that are of relevance in their immediate surroundings. For example, they will learn of the problems associated with livestock insects at the Kniplinq-Bushland US Livestock Insects Research Laboratory (KBUSLlRL) in Kerrville, Texas.
This lab is historically linked to the first peaceful use of radiation after WWII in helping to eradicate the screwworm fly (Cochiomyia hominivorax) and also has scientists working on different biting flies and researching deer as tick hosts.
Teachers may subscribe to a free, on-line science magazine, Agricultural Research. It is a publication of the USDA. There are 10 issues annually, each one highlighting recent research projects within the agency and written for the lay reader: http://www.ars.usda.gov/ar
So, science teachers, this article is an open invitation. You are invited to tour the Research Units at your local U5DA/ARS lab or at another lab within easy travel distance. Just make contact ahead of time to arrange a tour. You will gain a broader knowledge and perspective about the mission of the research center. The goal is for the scientists to provide you concrete examples of how they pursue scientific inquiry; how they come up with their questions for research; how they develop research protocols; how they pursue that research; and how they overcome problems and challenges when the research does not go as planned. This is cutting edge, real-world science. If you take the initiative, your students will reap the benefits of the collaboration.
Lederman, L. & Malcom, S. (2009). Editorial. The next campaign.
Science,6 (323), 1265
National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP). (2005). Executive summary. Rising above the gathering storm. Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: National Academy Press
National Research Council (NRC). (2003). Evaluating and improving undergraduate teaching in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Committee on Recognizing, Evaluating, Rewarding and Developing Excellence in Teaching of Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology, M.A. Fox and N. Hacker¬man, Editors. Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Science Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press
Pfund, C, Pribbenow, eM., Branshaw, J., Lauffer, S.M. & Handelsman, J. (2006). The merits of training mentors. Science, 27 (311), 473-74
Tai, R.H., Llu, CQ., Maltese, A.V., & Fan, X. (2006). Career choice enhanced: planning early for careers in science. Science 26 (312), 1143