Friday, November 3, 2017

Are You Experienced? (That's Research Experienced for Teachers, to be precise)

(NOTE: The following post was written by Andrew Doggett, a middle school science teacher in Texas.  Andrew was hired to assist with research in the summer of 2013, as part of a collaboration between Dan Bolnick, Andrew Hendry, and Katie Peichel. His salary came from the fantastic 'Research Experience for Teachers' (RET) program that NSF funds as supplements to new or existing grants. Since 2013, the Bolnick lab has hired 7 RETs to participate in research, usually in pairs, or paired with an undergraduate studying to become a K-12 STEM teacher. Most of these teachers have ended up as co-authors on one or more published articles. The following essay conveys the RET's perspective on this experience.  - Dan Bolnick, Nov 3, 2017)

A relative of mine once joked that "those who can't do - teach." I heard this statement in my youth, before I became a teacher, but I've recalled it often over the years. Of course it's a generalizing insult towards a challenging profession. Beyond that, I've always been amused that in this phrase, teaching doesn't count as "doing." As a middle school Science teacher I feel like all I do is “do” stuff every day – sometimes to the exclusion of thought, reflection, or down time! When I heard of the opportunity to work on Vancouver Island with UT Austin's Evolutionary Biology department it seemed like an amazing opportunity to expand my horizons. It also would clearly be a chance to "do" science, rather than teach it. I've always tried to make good personal or professional use of my job's greatest asset - summer off! - and this was a great mixture of the two.

We all have our strengths, weaknesses, and interests which contribute to our personality and job performance. As a middle school science teacher, participating in a field work environment for the summer of 2013 spoke to my interests, strengths, and some weaknesses all at once. This RET opportunity put me in the outdoors, often waist deep in a stream (my interest). I'd be required to provide labor and cooperation to a team (a strength). I'd also learn more about both laboratory and field scientific processes (a weakness, I felt). After applying and being asked to join off I went as soon as my school year was over!

The author, Andrew Doggett (right) and Dr. Yoel Stuart (left) collecting habitat data that would ultimately lead to Stuart et al 2017 Nature Ecology & Evolution, on which Andrew is a co-author.

It became apparent, after landing on Vancouver Island and being greeted by a researcher on crutches, that the summer would test me physically. I should probably note that the accident was pretty unusual. It would be disingenuous to say that UT had an injury reserve list and I got "called up for duty." However, the work of scrambling down embankments in our waders, laying out fish traps, and exploring gullies and overgrown creeks did require strength and stamina. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, fishing and hiking, so joining forces with scientists to wade in the verdant creek beds of Vancouver Island was a match made it heaven. The RET experience aligned perfectly with my idea of a good time, as crazy as it sounds! I was gratified, as the grueling day-to-day requirements of field science were revealed, that I'd chosen a field experience so physical and manual. Being adept at some of the things required in Northwest watersheds (waders, sure footing, and a patience with rain that was frequently tested) kept me confident as I learned new things every day

We drove to various sites around Vancouver Island laying traps for stickleback fish and meticulously logging the habitats of any trap which caught a fish. It was a fishing unlike I'd ever known, where the joy of a catch was preceded by arduous overland portage - and followed by a painstaking documentation! Under the baking sun or jammed into a thorny creek embankment, the collection and documentation of every fish was of the utmost importance, I came to realize. It was in this realm that I was able to grow most as a scientist. We're asked, as Science teachers, to promote STEM careers all the time to our students. It’s expected that we teach about scientific process as a basic undercurrent to every lab activity and historical discovery. Science teachers do a great job of promoting Science as a field of study - especially the understanding, creative, and bizarre Science teachers that most of us have a recollection (or stereotype!) of. Fun and encouraging as I may be as a teacher, however, I ached to develop a better sense of what I was promoting. It's so easy to get bogged down in the department mantras promoting the field (Science is Fun! STEM careers for all! Science saves lives! Jobs in engineering!) that we forget what precisely what we're talking about. My unspecified enthusiasm needed to be focused - and not having majored in a Science as an undergraduate felt like a weakness to me. My time in Vancouver remedied my vague understanding of scientific process - innumerable times I talked with my field leader about his experimental design and the analysis of our results. My time in Vancouver elucidated the importance of accuracy, and confirmed my enforcement of it with my students. Is that silt or sand? Partial overhanging foliage or fully overhanging? These were nuanced questions that potentially had vital importance to the study! It suddenly seemed reasonable to make my students differentiate between mass and weight! I am so grateful to this research experience for reminding me of the importance of specificity and accurate processes, as frustrating as it can be

What this experience also required was a good attitude and flexibility in challenging circumstances. I feel that all of these things played to my strengths as a person, irrespective of profession. Forced into a tent, pickup truck, or cabin with 4 strangers for a month!? It's a recipe to make everyone quite familiar, for better or worse.  I'm thankful for this trip though - I've maintained some very important and fulfilling relationships from that time together. I don't know that everyone can expect to be this lucky on a RET trip, but I'm grateful for my time in Vancouver for the friends I made on it. I had the opportunity to spend time with intelligent, hardworking, and funny people. Ultimately, I feel there was a great reciprocity in the RET experience. I contributed, certainly, with the skills and attitude I provided. I also felt that my trade was appreciated by my teammates on this trip, and I developed a strong appreciation for their day to day job.

Immersing myself in the job of scientist and seeing others’ interest in my profession helped instill direction and pride in my day to day job. I look back towards my time in Vancouver with appreciation for the friends I made and the strong reminder it provided me, as a science teacher, of the end result of a job well done… more scientists! More discerning and analytical minds! I developed a better bird’s eye view of the “science pipeline” that I am part of as a secondary science teacher. The myriad of responsibilities of my daily routine don’t allow me to weave tales of being in the field to my students, unfortunately. I’ve shown them pictures and told them stories occasionally, especially when the excitement of the experience was fresh. My field leader’s annual classroom visits are a great enduring connection as well. However, the most enduring aspect of my field work was not in curriculum changes or presentations (I cover very little biology), but in renewing my sense of purpose and exhibiting the necessity of enthusiastic, engaging Science education. 

The RET experience was enriched by interactions with Bolnick lab PhD students (Brian Lohman, left), postdocs (Yoel Stuart, middle), and other RETs (Tania Tasneem, right)

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