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A Big UNHbrella for Geosciences Education
An existing institutional strength in geosciences education will be that much stronger under a new initiative of cross-discipline consolidation

WHEN THE UNH ADMINISTRATION put out the call for proposals under its New Ventures Fund, Ruth Varner and colleagues involved in geosciences education felt confident they could submit a winner.

“We knew we wanted to do something out of EOS and the Leitzel Center because we were already doing a lot of interdisciplinary collaborative work across campus, and that’s what the New Ventures Fund is about – pulling faculty together from different disciplines and generating new ideas,” says Varner.

Erik Froburg and Ruth Varner
Photo by K.Donahue, UNH-EOS

Their proposal was indeed successful and resulted in the creation of the Center for Excellence in Geosciences Education (CEGE) housed in the Joan and James Leitzel Center. Varner serves as the new center’s director, with Leitzel Center director Karen Graham as the principal investigator.

The new center is a collaborative effort involving researchers from EOS, the Leitzel Center, and the departments of Earth science, natural resources and the environment, and education. As such, the center is very much in step with the UNH Strategic Plan’s push towards greater interdisciplinary collaboration.

“The idea behind the center,” notes Graham, “is to provide a forum for bringing together UNH’s recognized strength in geosciences research with that of education researchers and practitioners. By doing so, it is hoped the university will be able to position itself more strategically with funding agencies that are increasingly putting an emphasis on the education and outreach side of research grants.”

Adds Varner, a research associate professor in the EOS Complex Systems Research Center and UNH department of Earth sciences, “The National Science Foundation already requires you to show the broader impacts of a project as part of their review criteria for proposals, and that means demonstrating the societal relevance of your work and showing how you intend to get that information out effectively.”

In other words, unlike the days when a researcher could tack on an education and outreach portion to a research proposal as sort of an afterthought, funding agencies increasingly want to see something substantive, long lasting, and relevant to the larger needs of society.

“Many of us at EOS have talked about trying to pull together the extensive education and outreach experience we have into one location,” Varner says “and for a long time I’ve wanted to make this connection between EOS and the Leitzel Center much stronger and try to better integrate our areas of expertise.”

At the wetland study site behind the Oyster River Middle School in Durham, UNH graduate student and TESSE fellow Jill McDermott (left) and 7th-grade science teacher Stephanie Ward use a portable chamber to measure the carbon dioxide flux of soil and plants as part of the TESSE program.
Photo by David Sims, UNH-EOS.

Out of this consolidation the center hopes UNH will be able to more effectively attract funding for large, multimillion-dollar programs in geosciences education similar to the Leitzel Center’s Transforming Earth System Science Education or TESSE program. TESSE was a multiyear, $3 million NSF-funded professional development program for current and future teachers that combined content with authentic research experience.

Says Erik Froburg, associate director of the CEGE, “Down the road we’re hoping we might win funding for something even bigger than TESSE, like a regional center for some form of geosciences education. There are people here at UNH who feel we’re actually quite close to being able to do something like that given our current expertise and experience, but the new center should help bring us closer to that goal.”

Froburg, an educational program coordinator for the Leitzel Center, collaborates with multiple EOS investigators on educational outreach grants and plays a key role in developing the educational component of many EOS research grants.

He notes that the CEGE will not only pull together the disparate strengths UNH has in geosciences education but should also provide a common vision both from a content and pedagogical perspective.

“We’ll be able to formulate more coherently the content areas that need to be taught as well as establish the most effective way to teach those topics,” he says.

The TESSE program, which was led by UNH and involved three partner universities, has now transitioned from a grant-based program to one offering a graduate/undergraduate course through the department of Earth science. Over a period of three years TESSE built an extensive program where faculty and graduate students from UNH teamed up with middle and high school teachers to develop content and teaching methods in geoscience topics. At its heart the effort was aimed at providing students with authentic, research-based science content that emphasized inquiry and scientific discovery rather than “canned” science. This was achieved by supporting teachers in developing their own curricula.

From TESSE grew a core community of teachers located around the Northeast and beyond, and who now have both the training and curricula to provide their students with this authentic experience in geosciences. Part of what the CEGE will do is continue to bring fresh scientific research into the mix of creating curricula.

Thus, notes Froburg, “So now, with a dedicated geosciences education center, we might have a summer institute every year or develop some common means of disseminating new content to teachers. What this does is eliminate a lot of the upfront expense and the most time-consuming aspects. Now, a researcher can just focus on how they’re going to get their current research into the classroom.”

Over the years UNH has had great success on the education side of geosciences proposals small, medium, and large. In addition to TESSE, some of the larger proposals created the long-running Forest Watch and Watershed Watch programs, and the Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) program.

Says Varner, “The CEGE builds on the education and outreach work we’ve done in the past with these programs, which are all geosciences, all Earth related. And because some of our biggest societal challenges in the future are related to how well we understand the Earth system, the importance of training the next generation of students with real geosciences content and methodologies is critical.”

She adds that having the new geosciences education center will ultimately make the process of getting “the world-class research we do here at EOS translated and into classrooms for students to use much more fluid.”

By bringing an interdisciplinary team comprised of scientific researchers, education faculty researchers, and teachers together, meaningful content for use in the classroom can be crafted in a much more coherent way.

Says Froburg, “When helping educators develop new curricula, it’s important to have all the unique perspectives of teachers, scientists, and education researchers together because this allows you to most effectively translate geoscience research to student learning.”

by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Published in Summer 2011 issue of EOS Spheres.