This fall will mark the beginning of a special collaborative effort between graduate students at Kansas State University and teachers at Junction City High School in Geary County USD 475.
The National Science Foundation awarded K-State a $2.7 million grant for five years to establish a K-State-based project of the foundation's Graduate Science Fellows in Kindergarten through 12th Grade Education program. The K-State project will work to improve the communication and collaboration skills of young scientists while enriching science content in the classroom.
To prepare for the start of the program, teachers from Junction City High School and graduate students from K-State recently participated in a two-week intensive training session. Carolyn Ferguson, associate professor of biology at K-State, is director and principal investigator of the project, which is known as Evidence-based Inquiry into the Distant, Remote or Past. Scott Tanona, assistant professor of philosophy at K-State, and Jackie Spears, director of the K-State Center for Science Education, were co-directors of the training session.
"We want to take outstanding graduate students and bump them up a level," Ferguson said. "We want these students to become top-level scientists who can also talk science to legislators and the general public. When we say we want them to be better science communicators, we're thinking big."
Eight K-State graduate students from various science disciplines were selected as the project's first fellows. Each fellow receives a one-year stipend of $30,000 and has been paired with a teacher from Junction City High School for the upcoming school year.
"For me, being part of this program means the opportunity to better learn how to communicate with the general public about what science is and how it is done. I will get the opportunity to reach out to the community and learn more about my profession and myself through their eyes," said Andrew Gregory, doctoral student in biology, Wamego.
Encouraging better communication skills for scientists is good for everybody, according to Ferguson.
"We're training the fellows to be better science communicators in general as they help present lessons tied to state standards in science as inquiry and nature of science," she said. "As classroom resident scientists, they will also be challenged to present their own, sometimes abstract, scientific research in a way that is understandable to a non-specialist. They'll have to think deeply about the scientific process and why their research matters."
"Scientists are very good at communicating with other scientists but are not very good at communicating with the broader public, which leads to some of the clashes in the public's eye, said Matthew Krehbiel, a biology teacher at Junction City High School who is participating in the project. "If these grad students can learn to put it together in a way that inspires and educates high school students, then they can probably put together that information where it will inspire and educate most anybody in the population."
While the fellows will have many opportunities to communicate with students from varied backgrounds, the learning experience will not be just for the fellows and the high school students. It will be valuable for the teachers as well, Ferguson said.
"I think that with this partnership we may find that some of the strategies that we've been using are not as efficient as the strategies that we may learn from the graduate fellows," said Pat Anderson, associate superintendent of USD 475.
The graduate fellows will become models for the high school students and will provide a content specialist for the classroom to fill the gaps in explanation of scientific theories that might otherwise be left unexplained.
"This is absolutely the kind of collaboration that has the ability to make a difference," Anderson said.