FUTURES: European Researchers Night

Andy here-

A few weeks ago I took part in FUTURES: European Researchers Night (@FUTURES_ERN). FUTURES occurs all over the EU (300 cities, 24 countries), but locally was put on by several universities (University of Bristol, University of Bath, Bath Spa University) to highlight the contributions of the European Union to science in the area. There were storytelling functions, programs where you could walk to different locations with scientists talking about their research, and even the wonderfully British “Tea with a Researcher”. One of the odd things about science is that in a few key ways I count as a quasi-European researcher now that I’m affiliated with (work for) a European University. I’m also funded by the UK government through the Natural Environment Research Council. This is all despite being American. I originally wasn’t going to take part in this because I was supposed to be at a meeting, but a family circumstance required me to stay in town. Luckily, a local children’s museum was close enough and a few folks from the School of Earth Sciences had organized a display already. Because I was supposed to be in London, I had no part in the planning or creation of anything. As somebody who knows how much time can go into those, it was very nice to just come in and talk to folks.

Photo from Dr Vittoria Lauretano (@vit_lau). Only part of the 1 Kg of CO2 balloon collection is visible. I tend to dress down at events like this, my shirt says “Life uh finds a way” and has two Jurassic Park-style Velociraptors on it, and I lean into informality and humor. I find that helps me combat some stereotypes of scientists (stuffy, humorless dudes in white coats), and can defuse some of the tension while I’m describing how drastic climate change is for coral bleaching, hurricanes (which is what I was talking about here), human health, droughts, and on.

There were several different parts to the display. We had three jars with different levels of CO2 and lamps demonstrating the greenhouse effect. The jar and lamp setup worked surprisingly well, considering the numerous other variables, but by the end of the evening I think the seals gave out and the pure-CO2 temperature jar had equalized with the others. There were also several banners we could use in the background to talk about the different effects that climate change has on the Earth and us, including one that described the different fluxes of CO2 into the atmosphere (~28% from power, ~28% from transportation, etc.). Lastly, and the most conversation-starting, was a collection of food with a representation of how much carbon goes into the air. The best part was that there was a set of balloons each representing 1 kg of carbon. For each item then, there was a sheet of paper with how much carbon is emitted during production, then graphically represented as a bunch of balloons. So, if 3 kg of carbon is emitted, there were 3 clutches of balloons. It led to discussions of how much meat production emits, if it’s better to eat local or in season, and how much CO2 different modes of transportation emit. The balloons were key for many people, as they took a difficult problem to represent (atmospheric gas) and made it visual.

The entire display worked better for adults than it did for kids. In part, it’s tough to communicate climate change to kids… that’s not accurate. It feels really bad to talk about climate change to children. They’re too young to do anything about it; they can’t vote, they have little control over  their eating habits, they can’t control how they get around, but mostly because it’s not their fault. Climate change is a problem that we and our parents and their parents have caused, and it sucks to be the one to tell kids about what’s going to happen when they’re adults. Also, we were across the aisle from a virtual reality blood vein, so tough for jars of gas to compete. Bringing climate science to kids relies on props: cores, fossils, etc.; bringing it to adults can use that, but you can also talk about the real and very scary challenges that we will face due to climate change.

 

Freedom Schools Program

Rose here –

A picture of my teammate Katie and I with our Freedom School scholars. I am sitting second from the left in the back row.

This summer I got the chance to hang out with local elementary school students and do cool science experiments. I was one of several volunteers from 500 Women Scientists KnoxPod, an organization dedicated to science outreach and opportunities for fellowship for women scientists, and we partnered with the local Freedom Schools Program, a national summer literacy program for at-risk and minority youth. As part of our partnership, we came up with some fun experiments and demonstrations of various scientific topics to get our students engaged and interested in science.

Our main goals were to show the students that anyone can do science and that the ideas of science affect our daily lives in many ways. Since we had never done this before, it involved a lot of Google searching and trying to find ways to do experiments that were fun and doable for a range of ages and abilities of students. It was helpful that the students we worked with were divided into upper and lower elementary age groups, so we could have some activities involving more reading for the older kids. But both groups were very impressive with their understanding and retention of the ideas, even remembering things we had talked about much earlier in the summer!

One of the most rewarding moments was when one of the girls who had seemed kind of shy and reserved during the earlier sessions came up to me one day and told me that she wants to be a scientist when she grows up! By the end of the summer there were other kids too who would cheer when I walked in, declare that science was their favorite subject, and try to sit as close to me as possible. This made me feel like all the hours spent preparing lessons were totally worth it. I had never done any sort of K-12 classroom presentation before so it was also a really great opportunity to get more practice explaining the concepts of science in an accessible way.

Below are pictures from when we made a pendulum and added paint to make some art and show patterns of pendulum swinging and their causes.

Resources for DACA & Undocumented Students

Maggie here-

I recently had the opportunity to work with high school students and like many high schoolers, everyone was nervously discussing AP (advanced placement) classes that they were taking, when the next ACT or SAT test day was, and of course, what colleges everyone was looking at. For several of those students, thinking about college brought up questions about their immigration status in this country and what resources were available to them to help finance their education. I felt honored that these students felt comfortable enough to ask me for help finding these resources and I wanted to share with others some of the resources that I have found.

FAFSA + State Aid + In-State Tuition:

Map of the states that currently give in-state tuition to undocumented students, in-state tuition + financial aid to undocumented students. From We are the Dream.

FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) is the most annoying and painful online form that ultimately results in loans from the Department of Education to help pay for school. If you have DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, you are eligible to apply for FAFSA. However, even if you don’t have DACA status and are an undocumented student, you may be eligible to apply for state aid in certain states. In at least six states (California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington) you are able to apply for state aid.

In-State tuition varies from state to state, but thankfully there are good graphics and readily available lists of the states that are currently allowing in-state tuition. This can be a big issue for students because if you aren’t getting in-state tuition, often the school then has you pay international tuition, which is significantly more expensive. Like applying for state aid, these in-state tuition states do require residency in those states, and some of those states have an application that needs to be filled out in order to be considered for in-state tuition.

Click here for more information about FAFSA + State Aid + In-State Tuition

Private Scholarships:

Privately funded scholarships are also an option and a quick Google search will bring up more than I have included here. Like with any scholarships though, there are applications (and sometimes other supplemental materials) with strict deadlines, so looking sooner rather than later is to your benefit! Some of these scholarships do require you to go to specific schools or be a resident of specific states, so make sure to look at the fine print and all eligibility requirements before applying!

Scholarships:

Golden Door Scholars
The Dream
Scholarships for DREAMers

Tennessee specific scholarships:
Equal Chance for Education

Other Resources:

Applying to and attending college as an undocumented student can come with a very different set of challenges placed on top of the usual nerves of going away to school. The website My Undocumented Life has blog posts and articles written by other undocumented students about all kinds of life situations that are different or challenging because of immigration status. I will also say that Twitter can be a very valuable resource to anyone looking for scholarships, financial aid, or any questions about college as an undocumented student. If you search hashtags like #undocumented, #DACA, #Dreamers, #UndocuSTEM, or if you tweet asking for help looking for resources using those hashtags, other students who have gone through similar situations already are likely to respond and help you out or provide advice!

From the perspective of a teacher, I will also say that if you have a teacher, guidance counselor, or another person that you trust to share this information with and ask for help, we want to help you. Every person who wants an education deserves access to that education and at least in my case, I will continue to help anyone and everyone who needs help finding a way to make that happen!

Planetary Geologic Mapper’s Meeting

Rose here –

The meeting room with several posters of maps that were presented.

One of my favorite events every year is called the Planetary Geologic Mappers Meeting. This is a meeting held annually at which all scientists with a NASA grant to do geologic mapping come and present updates on their maps. It’s really cool because there are maps not just of well-known or major planetary bodies (Mars, Mercury, Venus, the Moon) but also of smaller or less well-known bodies, including asteroids, dwarf planets, and several moons of planets in the solar system. Earth is of course a planet too, but to distinguish science done on and about earth from that done about any other place in the solar system or universe, everything not on Earth is called “planetary” and Earth-specific research is termed “terrestrial”. The main point of this meeting is to update NASA, although it has also become a place to get feedback and support from the USGS Astrogeology mapping support team and fellow mapping scientists, but it’s also a great opportunity for students to network and learn more about planetary geologic mapping.

This meeting is very small, generally less than 50 attendees, unlike the big geology conferences like GSA (Geological Society of America) and AGU (American Geophysical Union). This means that even though this was only my third time attending, I was familiar with many of the people there and what they were doing. There were a number of new faces this time, which is very exciting. It’s always fun when people start doing planetary mapping for the first time, and the community is very welcoming of new-comers and willing to help.

Several members of Dr. Burr’s research group discussing a map of fluvial features on Titan (a moon of Saturn).

This year it was held in our department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. My advisor, Dr. Devon Burr, was the local organizer this year, so I got a chance to see everything that goes into hosting a conference like this. It was great fun to welcome all the mappers to Knoxville. I’ve made a few friends at this meeting over the years and I loved the chance to show them around my city.

The first two days are poster and oral presentations. One person from each mapping team gives an oral presentation on their project, with some time for questions they have for other mappers or thoughts and questions from the mappers and USGS mapping staff. Most mapping teams also have posters of their maps. There is lots of time built into the schedule for poster presentations and networking. There are teams of mappers from different universities or institutions who use this time to meet and discuss their work in person rather than phone or e-mail as they usually have to do during the school year. It’s also a good time for student mappers to ask more experienced mappers or those with expertise in a particular field for advice and feedback on their projects.

This photo shows members of the Earth and Planetary Sciences department who participated in the Planetary Mapper’s Meeting this year. On the far right is Dr. Devon Burr, who led the local organizing committee for the meeting.

The first night we had a social and all went out for dinner at a local restaurant. It was a great break from all the science we’d been discussing. We got a chance to catch up and talk about where we’re all living and working, show off pictures of our pets and families, etc. It’s good as scientists to take time to appreciate each other as humans too with lives outside of our jobs each day. While this meeting is short and sweet, it’s always great fun and I look forward to the next one!

8th Grader Fossil Fun!

Adriane here-

Here at University of Massachusetts Amherst, I do a lot of science outreach with kids of all ages! Early in the summer, I had the opportunity to show 45 8th grade students fossils from all major times in Earth’s history and teach them how we can use fossils to determine how the Earth has changed through time. My advisor, Mark, was also there to help teach the kids!

The front table had all Paleozoic (~550-250 million years ago) fossil; the middle table contained Mesozoic (220-66 million years ago) fossils; and the back table contained Cenozoic (66-0 million years ago) fossils.

The first thing Mark and I did was to gather fossils from the three major eras in Earth’s history: the Paleozoic (time), Mesozoic (~250-66 million years ago), and Cenozoic (66-0 million years ago). We created three major tables in a classroom, one table for each era. I then labeled each fossil by the time period in which it belonged (and each era was associated with a different color paper) and what the fossil was. There are three white boards in the classroom, so we assigned each group a white board to write down their observations on. When the kids arrived, we broke them into 3 groups each, and let each group observe the fossils at each table for about 3-5 minutes. Then the groups switched tables so that all groups saw each table of fossils.

We asked the group to make observations about their fossils from each era. Questions we had them consider were things such as: Where did they begin to see animals with teeth? In what era were animals mostly invertebrates? What kinds of animals did you see in each era (dinosaurs, mammals, etc.). The students wrote these observations on their white boards. Of course, some of our questions and their answers were biased by the specimens we had available (for example, we have TONS of Paleozoic brachiopods and trilobites, but no fish or other vertebrates with teeth).

Students writing their observations about the fossils from the three major eras on their white boards.

After all the groups had seen all the fossils, we then asked them to assemble by their boards and think about the differences among the major eras. They came up with some great answers, such as that the land animals with big teeth (such as mammoths, horses, and bison) dominated the Cenozoic, and the majority of shelled animals were dominant during the Paleozoic. And of course, they were totally tuned into the fact that the Mesozoic was the age of dinosaurs.

At the end of this exercise, we then gave the students and their teachers a chance to ask us any remaining questions they had about geology or fossils. Both the students and teachers asked really great questions! One of the teachers asked if all mass extinctions were caused by major climate change events (they were, except for the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, which was caused by a major impact). My favorite question of the day was from a girl who asked why all geologists wore earth-toned clothes! It turned out that both my advisor and I were wearing forest green shirts, so we found this quite amusing 😊

All in all, it was an excellent day spent with the students! They really enjoyed being able to pick up and hold the fossils, and learn about how paleontologists use them to interpret changes in Erath’s climate through time.

Advising High School Seniors

Adriane here-

Jordan and Sophia in front of one of the display rocks at the granite counter tops outlet.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to help advise two high school seniors. Both students, Sophia and Jordan, attend a private school here in western Massachusetts. As part of their graduation requirements, all the seniors that attend the school must participate in a two-week internship with a local company, college, university, hospital, etc. to gain some employment and/or lab experience. Sophia and Jordan have both been accepted into universities beginning this fall, and both want to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. So it made sense that the girls work at UMass in labs to gain some hands-on experience.

The high schoolers initially contacted our department head, Professor Julie Brigham-Grette, in the Geosciences Department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Brigham-Grette has worked with high school seniors from this particular high school in previous years, and thus the teachers at this school know her well. That is how the students knew to contact her. I was able to be involved with the girls and their internship because Dr. Brigham-Grette knew I was doing a lot of lab work, was around this summer, and could use the extra help. And indeed, I did need the extra help around my lab!

Sophia at the microscope in my lab looking at foraminifera.

Dr. Brigham-Grette and I met before the students started to discuss what projects we wanted them to work on. We made a list of four major tasks. The first was to identify the types of rocks that our classroom desk tops are made of. My department purchased the counter tops (which were cut down to desk-top size) from a local company. The second task was to begin building a blog to tell students and people about the different rock types and what minerals they contained. The third task was to help me organize and label all my samples from the four ocean sites I’m currently working with. The fourth task was to learn how to weigh and wash sediment samples. The students were only with us for two weeks, so we had plenty of tasks to keep them busy and learning!

The first day the students arrived, I had both of them work with me. The first thing I did was to show them around our department, which included peeking into the different labs and explaining the major types of science that our professors and graduate students conduct. Then we went to lunch on campus (fun fact: UMass Amherst is ranked #1 in the country by the Princeton Review for Best Campus Food). After lunch, I taught Sophia and Jordan how to read the labels on my samples (for an overview of how we label our sediment samples from the deep sea and how to read them, see this post). Then, I had them color-code each sample with different colored dots. I’ve done a number of different analyses with my samples, so it’s useful to know which sample I’ve used for which analysis. The students were able to finish this task of sorting and labeling by the third day! From this activity, they learned how to read sediment samples and how scientists collect the sediment cores.

On the second day, I began teaching the students how to process my sediment samples. These samples were from sediment cores we collected last summer in the Tasman Sea. The way I needed to process these samples differed from what I normally do. First, we needed to weigh the entire sample when it was dry (which is basically a chunk of dried mud). Then, we needed to wash the dried mud sample over a sieve in the sink to collect the tiny microfossils contained in the mud. After the sample was washed, we then dried it in the oven overnight. Once completely dried, we re-weighed the sieved sediment. With the weight of the mud sample and the weight of the fossils, I can then calculate what weight percent of the mud is from foraminifera, the microfossils I work with. This number also tells me how much carbonate (the mineral that my microfossils make their shells out of) accumulated in the oceans at any one time! Sophia and Jordan both donned lab coats and glasses and worked together to get a good amount of the mud samples weighed.

Jordan with the rock tables in one of our classrooms. Each table top is a different rock!

In the afternoon, we split Sophia and Jordan up: Sophia stayed with me in my lab, and Jordan went with Dr. Brigham-Grette to begin identifying the desk top rocks in one of our classrooms. I had already weighed and dried some of the mud samples before the students started working with us so I could teach Sophia all steps of sample processing in one day. Sophia spent the afternoon washing sediment over the sieve. By the end of the day, Jordan had compiled a list of names for most of the rocks in our classroom!

The rest of our time with the students included them bouncing between my lab and the classroom to ID desk top rocks. After about a week of both girls working with the desk tops, they had created a spreadsheet with information about each rock type, such as the types of minerals in each rock, the age, the name of the formation from which each rock came from, and where the formation was located. However, we were still missing a lot of this information, especially the age, name of the formation, and where the rock actually came from. So, Dr. Brigham-Grette and I decided to take the students to the company where the Geosciences department purchased the rocks. I had never been to a  countertop outlet, but needless to say, we all had a blast! The company, Granite Creations, had an awesome selection of different rocks used for countertops on display outside of their warehouse. Every rock slab was polished and absolutely beautiful! Dr. Brigham-Grette and I nerded out for about half an hour looking at all the rocks and trying to identify the minerals in each. After taking tons of selfies and images of the rocks, we then talked to the sales representatives about the information we needed. They didn’t have all the information at hand, but were very happy to take our information and look it all up for us!

One of our last days with the students, we still wanted to teach them how to set up a website/blog about the rock tables they’d worked so hard to identify, and introduce them to some HTML coding. So, since I have now been involved in creating three websites, I sat down with the students and Dr. Brigham-Grette and showed them how to make static pages on a site, and how to make blog posts. After the framework of the site was up, we let the students add in information and images. The site it far from finished, and different people in our department will continue to flesh out the information in the coming months, but here’s the site: Geo Rock Tables. We were thrilled with the layout and images that Sophia and Jordan picked!

Dr. Brigham-Grette teaching Jordan and Sophia about the different minerals in a rock slab at the counter top outlet.

All in all, Sophia and Jordan worked a total of 40 hours with Dr. Brigham-Grette and I at UMass. From our four main activities, the students learned a lot: how to process sediment samples, what data can be obtained from weighing the mud and sieved sediment, the importance of scientific ocean drilling, how to set up a website and blog, introduction to HTML coding, and the different types of rocks used in the countertop industry. They also gained valuable work experience, such as showing up to a job on time, learning how to do tasks, and learning how to successfully execute those tasks. I was very proud of the work both students accomplished while they were with us, and was sad to see them go! Because of Jordan and Sophia’s hard work helping me process my sediment samples, I was able to begin other analyses with them, and am currently ahead of schedule on a particular project!

Some personal thoughts: Not all high school students get the chance the explore a field, career, or job they might be interested in before committing to college or trade school. But I think exploring different types of careers is great for students, and gives them an idea of what type of career they’d like to go into.

If you are a high school student, or a parent/guardian of a high schooler, and think they’d be interested in working in a lab, reach out to your local university! If your student loves animals, for example, go to your local college or university’s website and find their Biology department. Each department should have a page that lists the professors (commonly under ‘Faculty’). Look for the department head, and shoot them an email asking if your student could intern with a professor or graduate student. I guarantee that there is at least one graduate student or professor who would jump at the opportunity to have an extra set of hands help in the lab over the summer!

Judging the Wyoming State Science Fair

Megan here-

There’s something unmistakable about science fairs. Rows of tri-fold poster boards sit atop long tables, students stand eagerly (or nervously) next to their projects, and judges meander through the maze of people and posters. In middle school, I associated the words “science fair” with outright fear. I loved science, but my shyness meant that having to talk to adults and be judged was simply miserable. Luckily, I’ve developed since the woeful days of middle school and I quite enjoy talking about science. So when the opportunity arose to be a judge for the Wyoming State Science Fair (WSSF), I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

What do you do as a judge?

In its simplest sense, judging at the WSSF is broken down into three components:

    Previewing projects and taking notes while the students are not present
    Interviewing students about their projects
    Discussing scoring and winning projects with your judging team

All of this happens in the span of one day (or two if you preview the day before). I was on a judging team with four other people from a variety of earth sciences backgrounds. Each team had a category and a division to judge, and would go through the three aforementioned steps to choose first, second, and third place for that category and division. Our team was assigned to the Junior Division (sixth through eighth grade) Earth & Environmental Science Category.

What’s it actually like being a judge?

The WSSF was held in the University of Wyoming Union in a large ballroom filled with rows and rows of tables. Walking in, I recognized that familiar sense of unease and nervousness, but this time it was not mine. Having already previewed the projects while the students were not present, it was time for the interviewing–the part I remember being the most terrifying as the student. As I began going from project to project talking with students, I was struck by the confidence and creativity of these middle schoolers. Many students had short presentations prepared, they were all excited to answer my questions, and most didn’t hesitate to share their accomplishments (and their obstacles) with a total stranger. I was wildly impressed.

What I found most interesting was the underlying theme of all of the projects. Every student chose to study an environmental problem that affected them or their communities. One student studied the soil vibration effects of windmills near their town, another examined the pollution from cars idling at their middle school, and a group of students developed a sponge for hydrocarbon remediation for nearby oil spills. These students looked at the world around them, recognized a problem, and then studied it or tried to fix it. The results of such efforts were utterly fascinating.

What was the hardest part?

The deliberation was certainly the most challenging component of science fair judging. A team of five people means five different opinions. Some of us were graduate students, some were educators, and some were professional geologists. At the end of the day, this group of five had to decide on three top projects, and it was nearly impossible. Luckily, discussion and compromise led us to a decision, but it was no easy feat. Hearing each other’s opinions was intriguing and helped me see projects in a different light. It was an opportunity to be more open and view things from a different perspective.

In the end, judging the science fair was a rewarding and meaningful experience. If there were any middle school students who were as nervous as I used to be, I hope that I gave them the confidence to speak up about their science. Communicating science is undoubtedly the most important component of science itself, and instilling confidence in the next generation of scientists is imperative for our future.

If you’d like to learn more about the WSSF, view the list of 2018 awardees, or see pictures of the winning projects, click here.

Boy Scouts Oceanography Badge at UMass

Adriane here-

Caroline leading the discussion on reasons why studying our oceans and its animals is important.

Every year, University of Massachusetts Amherst hosts hundreds of local Boy Scouts on campus through the program Merit Badge University. This is an awesome program that introduces the boys to different careers and fields of study. Most years, the UMass Geosciences department participates in the event. In previous years, we have helped the scouts earn their Geology and Mining in Society badges. In addition, we have also hosted local Webelos Cub Scouts in the department to teach them about local rocks and geologic processes.

This year, a small group of graduate students, including myself, worked with the boys to earn their Oceanography badges. The Merit Badge University program is spread over two Saturdays: one in February, and another in March. The boys are required to attend both weekends to fulfill the requirements for their desired badges. The first week was co-led by our Time Scavengers collaborator, Raquel, who focused on teaching the boys about our oceans and the different properties of these huge bodies of water.

Benjamin leading the discussion on underwater topographic features while the boys draw their underwater scenes.

I participated in the second week, along with two other graduate students, Benjamin and Caroline, and my two undergraduate students, Adam and Solveig.   We taught the boys about climate change and its effects on the ocean, marine life, and plankton, and they learned about seafloor features and the different branches of oceanography.

The first activity included the boys breaking into 4 small groups. Each group was assigned a branch of oceanography (physical, chemical, marine ecology, and marine geology) to research. Then, each group presented their findings to the rest of the participants. We also had the students come up with reasons why they think oceanography is important to study.

Adam helping a scout identify planktic foraminifera!

The second activity included a short presentation on climate change, and how increasing atmospheric CO2 is affecting our oceans and marine life. Topics we discussed included ocean acidification, ocean warming, and ocean stratification, as well as the effects of pollution on marine life. We were all pleasantly surprised with how well-versed the boys were on the subject, and many had their own climate change or pollution stories to share.

The third activity of the day included teaching the boys about the different types of underwater features, or topography. Benjamin gave a short presentation, then we had the boys draw their own underwater scene with the most common seafloor features included. The boys had a great time drawing their underwater scenes while chatting!

Solveig (right) looks through the microscope to confirm a scout’s (center) identification of a radiolarian, while Benjamin (left) listens to his reasoning!

The last activity of the day included teaching the boys about marine ecology. For this section, the boys were required to learn about marine plankton, food webs, and how the ocean produces and holds so much life. To get the boys thinking about what makes up the food chain, we set up microscopes around the room with samples of marine sediment and pond sediments. This way, the boys could see the vast number of marine plankton that make up the sediments. These plankton also make up the base of the food chain in marine systems! We created a short handout with pictures of some common plankton, such as planktic foraminifera, benthic foraminifera, and radiolarians. We also encouraged the boys to look for other odd things, such as echinoderm spines, ostracods, and fish teeth! Everyone (including us graduate and undergraduate students) had a blast looking through the microscopes!

We ended the event by quickly talking about the ways in which scientists can study the ocean. Unfortunately, we had so much fun doing our other activities, we didn’t have much time to discuss the various ways in which we do this! However, we were able to complete all the requirements for the Oceanography badge, so all of the scouts we taught earned this badge this year!

Teaching effectively for all students

Sarah here –

I’m in my first year of teaching at the University of South Florida. I’ve had almost 700 students come through my classroom, just in my first two semesters! I wanted to write a little bit about what I’ve learned about making my lectures work for students of all different backgrounds. USF is a wonderful place to do this because our students come from every background imaginable! We have students from nearly every country on Earth, every native language, religion, socioeconomic and veteran status, etc. imaginable! It’s one of the things I love most about USF- I get to learn all about the world through my students. This unique community also presents me with the opportunity to make my lectures and my teaching style accessible to students who are English language learners (ELLs)-you may have referred to these students as ESL (English as a second language) in the past-educators have moved away from using that term because many students are actually learning English as a third and even fourth language! A large percentage of USF students are classified as ELLs-and they come from all over the world! Just in the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with students from Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria, Germany, Finland, Russia, China, Japan, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and more.
The introductory course I teach-History of Life-is very heavy in scientific jargon, no matter how you slice it (e.g., the names of dinosaurs, geologic time periods, etc.), so I’ve been working with my ELL students to help them feel more confident in the class. I’ve listed some of the methods I’ve found useful below!

Essay questions

All of my exams have short answer components, where they have to take scientific evidence and present conclusions. I write 2-3 questions per lecture topic and post them as a discussion board on Canvas (or Blackboard, or any sort of other online gradebook/digital classroom environment). I have seen dramatic improvements in the confidence levels of ELL students, as well as native English speaking students, when handling the essay portions of the exam. Allowing them to practice their communication skills in advance has allowed them to excel. I never tell the students which questions I am choosing for the exam, but this way, students can post their answers on the discussion boards, so that I can spend a few seconds working with them one-on-one. It might seem like a lot of work, but truthfully, it’s only about a ½ hour out of my week, usually.

The geologic time scale

To help students learn these very odd words more easily, I have located geologic time scales in as many languages as possible. Students who speak languages, especially, that aren’t rooted in the Roman alphabet have found that it is much easier to make connections with these terms. (The ICS has a bunch of those time scales listed here)

A vocabulary list

As a rule, my exams are not about vocabulary. Meaning, my multiple choice or essay questions are not asking you to define terms-students have to use the terms to explain phenomena we see in the geologic record. However, the amount of vocabulary in a science class is daunting for many, so one way that I can boost students’ confidence is to provide a list of vocabulary I expect them to know (e.g., Tyrannosaurus, Devonian, albedo) so that they know on the exam what words they will be expected to know.

An example of one of my slides with the term defined (this day, I had a  Star Wars themed lecture).

Posting unfamiliar terms on the PowerPoint slides

I generally don’t use too much text on my slides-but I do make sure to put the topic of the slide, any scientific words, and image descriptors on the slides (or at least in the notes). This helps students who may feel overwhelmed with just trying to figure out vocabulary words merely from me saying them out loud (English words really aren’t the easiest to spell, are they?)

Using familiar words

I’m still working on this one, for sure. I try to make sure that my lectures and my exams use common words. For instance, I have used words like ‘hypothetical’ and ‘plummet’ before on exams. ELL students who might be unfamiliar with some of these words can often feel overwhelmed. I do my best to a) make sure students know that they are welcome to ask me to define non-vocabulary words b) provide alternatives to these words on the test (for example-hypothetical (imaginary)) or c) avoid using words (e.g., use “drop sharply” instead of “plummet”) that might add to the stress of exam day.

Only assign videos that have great subtitles

I have my students watch a number of documentaries to learn more about certain materials. However, I have noticed that a number of videos posted on, for example, YouTube, might not have reliable captions, making it very difficult for ELL students to fully capture the science presented.

Use the microphone

My classes are big-my largest is just under 200 students. I am not a very loud person, usually, but if I need to, I can make myself heard for a 75-minute lecture. However, many students find it harder to understand words if they cannot hear them as loudly and as clearly. Using a microphone relieves the stress of many students. Even if you feel that you are loud enough, still consider using the microphone! (Bonus-this is also a huge help for hard of hearing students).

These techniques are meant to help my students feel more confident about their knowledge in my class. By making these small changes, I have found that my class is much more accessible to a larger percentage of the class and that students are giving me better and more detailed answers and they are able to make higher-level scientific deductions-which is what any science instructor wants, right? As an added bonus, many of these methods are also very helpful to students from any background who aren’t so confident in their writing skills, or who missed class due to illness or emergency, or to students with accommodations (e.g., ensuring that there are captions on videos and that your PowerPoint slides have image descriptions) also allows Deaf and hard of hearing students to have full access to your class, too! I hope that I can continue to make my classes more accessible-if you have any tips, please feel free to comment below!

Hosting, preparing, and presenting at a regional conference meeting

Audrey’s title slide before her presentation started!

The Geological Society of America has section meetings in addition to the large annual meeting. These are separated out by regions, so here in Tennessee, we are in the Southeastern section. Each year a different institution takes the lead on hosting, planning, and executing the meeting. This means that there is a ‘chair’ that oversees all others and has to get faculty and students to help run the meeting.

Some of the faculty in our department played roles in coordinating volunteers, field trips, exhibits, the presentations, sponsors, and finances. That’s a lot of different jobs and a lot of work! In order to get registration covered, many of the graduate students in the department volunteered to help run the event. This included tasks such as helping people with registration, or upload their talks, or being present in the session rooms in case something went wrong. All of these are rather simple tasks, but really vital for a well- functioning meeting. I helped with registration the night the meeting started and then again at 6:30 AM the next morning. I also don’t drive in town so I was biking in and out each day; needless to say I was exhausted by the end of the meeting.

Audrey Parker with some of her 3D printed foraminifera models!

In addition to volunteering at the event, I was helping three students prepare, and preparing a talk myself! Maggie and I have been co-advising Audrey, who has been working on developing lesson plans around digital models of microfossils! She gave a talk on these microfossils during SE GSA! This meant we prepared and practiced a talk for the two weeks before SE GSA happened. Practicing talks helps you remember what you want to say and get comfortable in a professional talk setting. There are often podiums so you can’t move freely and you can’t always move toward the screen so you have to get comfortable with a laser pointer!

Logan’s title slide!

Logan was also gave a talk during the meeting on her own research. I’ve been working with her on using two different methods to reconstruct internal anatomy of fossil echinoderms. One method involves cutting the specimen up into tiny pieces, and the other part of her research includes using fancy X-ray imaging to see the differences in mineral density within the specimen. The X-ray imaging does not destroy the specimens, which is a big perk. However, fossil echinoderms have calcite skeletons and the sediment that fills inside their bodies is the same mineral, so the density differences are quite minor. Logan and Audrey both picked times the two weeks before to practice in front of Maggie and I. Each time they improved and we provided them with feedback!

Logan presenting her research on evaluating model development of blastoid respiratory structures.

Chris was presenting a poster, so a little less stressful but he did have to field questions for about two hours. His work was on uncovering specimens that were less than 5 mm in height to aid in our understanding of blastoid growth! It’s really cool because there are two differently shaped blastoids from this same location and you can see the differences in shape all the way down to specimens smaller than ¼ mm. We practiced presenting his poster several times before the meeting. Once was on a big projector where he pointed out his work to us and then several more times once his poster was printed.

Chris Smith presenting his undergraduate research on blastoid ontogeny in the Thursday afternoon poster session.

Everyone did incredibly well presenting their work at SE GSA! Regional conferences are a really great starting conference for young scientists because there is typically less than 1,000 people in attendance. The larger annual GSA meetings include upwards of 8,000 people. That’s overwhelming! So, after I made sure the undergraduate students were feeling confident with their work, I was able to start my talk. I took a portion of my dissertation and went into more detail on specific aspects of the project and how it related back to Paleozoic echinoderms in general. I only had a few days to prepare my talk so I didn’t have much time to really practice or even write a script but it went well! Since I have more experience presenting, I made the right choice in focusing more on the undergraduates’ experience at SE GSA.