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Steeped in Research

Local high school teachers trek to Chinese hot springs with a UNLV team to immerse themselves in field experiences and bring back new approaches to teaching.
Research  |  Mar 18, 2014  |  By Shane Bevell
Las Vegas High School teacher Nathan Williams collects samples from the "Great Boiling Pot" in the Tengchong Volcanic Geological Park.

"Be safe. Have fun. Do good science." UNLV biology professor Brian Hedlund started each day with those words as he guided a group of researchers and local teachers on a research trip to China. Seven high school science teachers from the Clark County School District spent three weeks last summer hiking through a mountain rainforest, climbing stairs, and exploring small Chinese towns in order to collect water and soil samples from hot springs as a part of a geomicrobiology research project led by Hedlund and chemistry professor MaryKay Orgill.

The experience was part of the National Science Foundation's Partnerships for International Research and Education Program (PIRE). It encourages large international collaborations -- in this case, with Chinese scientists. Under the five-year grant, which began in 2010, scientists are identifying the microscopic organisms living within the Tengchong Geothermal Field in Southwest China's Yunnan Province and learning how they function and interact. The project seeks to understand how hot spring ecosystems work and their potential contributions to science, biomedicine, and renewable energy.

"It is one thing to learn about how science works from a book or a class. It is an entirely different thing to know what science looks like because you have experienced it yourself," said Orgill, an expert in chemistry education. "That personal experience with science research gives the teachers the background they need to design meaningful science learning experiences."

The experience is paying dividends for Jennifer Conder, a biology teacher at Southwest Career and Technical Academy. She noticed how much emphasis the PIRE scientists placed on asking questions and planning investigations, so she is now prompting her students to ask the questions that guide their laboratory experiences. She's also giving her students more freedom to plan the experiments they carry out.

Preparing for China

The teachers' participation in the Tengchong PIRE project began well before their time in China. Prior to their summer trip, the teachers attended monthly online meetings in which PIRE researchers collaborated to plan the studies that would be carried out during the trip. They also took three weekend field trips to local hot springs to learn about hot springs ecology and practice techniques for gathering and analyzing water and soil samples.

Upon arriving in China, the high school teacher team met in Kunming, a city with a population more than 3 million and the capital of Yunnan Province. They attended and presented at a scientific conference at Yunnan University. They also visited a local middle school, observed a science class, and talked with Chinese science teachers. This experience helped them see the differences between educational philosophies and approaches in China and the United States.

Mike Bycraft, a geosciences and physics teacher at Green Valley High School, described this classroom visit as being particularly impactful. "It was a wonderful experience to see my counterpart teach a lesson and then to have a relatively frank discussion afterwards with teachers and administrators. It was comforting to see that all teachers, regardless of country, share similar problems and experiences in their careers."

After the scientific conference in Kunming, the research team traveled to Tengchong and then to Ruidian, two locations with multiple hot springs to study. There, the teachers joined with existing research teams from universities in China and the U.S. to collect water and soil samples and to test the water samples they had collected.

"I found working within the context of an actual field experience to be memorable," said Aaron Dehne, a chemistry teacher at Clark High School. "The experience was unfiltered and stark when compared to my past experiences in research. As a member of a team, I felt compelled to meet and excel at my job."

Trip Prompts Improvements

The experiences of doing research in the field are now changing how the teachers introduce their Southern Nevada students to science and scientific research. Bycraft, for example, said his school field trips were not always well connected to the content in his classroom and students were not involved in the planning of the trips. Because he realized how essential the monthly online planning meetings were to the success of his China field research trip, Bycraft has created explicit pre-field trip activities so students develop related content knowledge and start to plan for the trip.

Now that they are home from China, the teachers continue to be involved with the Tengchong PIRE project. Each of the teachers is preparing a manuscript about how what they experienced in China is affecting their classroom teaching for submission to a journal for high school science teachers. They are sharing their experiences with other local teachers. On Feb. 8, the teachers presented their experiences at the Southern Nevada Science Conference.

In his presentation, Nathan Williams, a biology and physical science teacher at Las Vegas High School, talked about how he saw the Tengchong PIRE researchers engineer solutions to problems they encountered in the field and how students could benefit from participating in that same engineering design process.

Tony Whitney, a physics and anatomy & physiology teacher at Western High School, discussed what he learned about how scientists view research and how that is affecting his own classroom practice.

While the teachers benefited from their interactions with the Tengchong PIRE researchers, the benefits were not one-sided, UNLV's Orgill noted. "The research groups were able to collect more data than they had on previous trips to China because of the contributions of the teachers. The teachers were also able to introduce the researchers to technological applications that made gathering and sharing collected data easier," Orgill said. "On a personal level, I learned a lot about teaching and how to better interact with my students as a result of the discussions I had with teachers in this project."

Other Participating High School Teachers

  • Kris Carroll: Formerly a physics, earth science, biology, marine science, and Principles of Science teacher at Clark High School and Green Valley High School; currently a K-12 Regional Science Trainer with the Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program
  • Cindy Kern: Formerly an earth science, biology, marine science, and Principles of Science teacher at Green Valley High School; now an assistant professor at the University of New Haven