Thursday, March 31, 2011

Maui: Honokalani Black Sand Beach

I just got back from Maui on Friday, but I wanted to share some of our adventures. I got really lucky that I was able to go geo-trekking with another nerd who humored me getting my nerd on. We hiked all over Haleakala and last Wednesday, we trekked out to the 7 Sacred Pools (more on these adventures later).

On our way back along the infamous "Road to Hana", we stopped at Waianapanapa State Park to visit the black sand beach. It's one of those things on my bucket list, 'cause I'm a nerdy geologist. The black sand is actually more like black pebbles with a little sand in between. What really struck me was watching the waves from the lava tube turned sea cave. I even made a video for you. BTW, for those who choose to visit, they mean it when they say strong surf.

I made a little offering to Pele, since she has inspired my desire to be a scientist ever since I was in 4th grade. It occurred to me that my 4th grade teacher went to Maui and brought me back a T-shirt that I wore until it fell apart, literally. She knew I loved volcanoes. I wanted so much to visit HI based on her trip. I hope Pele accepts my offering and knows how much she inspires me.

I hope this video of the waves from the point of view of the lava tube inspires you as well.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

GK12: How's this for results?

I can't help myself. I need to brag a little. Of the senior class of 11 students I work with, 9 entered the science fair. More importantly all 9 came home with awards. Two of them won 1st place honors, one in Botany/Zoology for her project on flightless birds and the other won in 1st in Earth Science with his project on the effects of sea level rise associated with global warming on different nations. While I am blanking the personal information for obvious reasons, here's the list:

1st Place Senior in Botany & Zoology division
Pioneers in Science Award
Linda Hall Library Display award
XX State Fair Award

Gold Achievement
Write up entered into Society for Technical Communication Writing Contest

Silver Achievement
Linda Hall Library Display Award
XX City Garden Club
Greater XX City Association of Family and Consumer Sciences
Write up entered into Society for Technical Communication Writing Contest

Bronze Achievement
American Society for Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing (ASPRS)
XX City Garden Club
Offered a future internship with Environmental Company

Silver Achievement

Bronze Achievement
Write up entered into Society for Technical Communication Writing Contest
Offered a future internship with Environmental Company

1st place Senior in Earth and Space Science division
Gold Achievement
American Meteorological Society - XX City Chapter
American Society for Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing (ASPRS)
[University] Advanced Certificate Program in GIS
Earth Science
Association For Women Geoscientists
XX State Fair Award
Write up entered into Society for Technical Communication Writing Contest

Bronze Achievement
ASM International - XX City Chapter
Write up entered into Society for Technical Communication Writing Contest

Silver Achievement
Write up entered into Society for Technical Communication Writing Contest

I intend to help JC get her paper published in a scientific journal and help CP and DP present their work at GSA (fingers crossed) this year. Please congratulate them on all their hard work and remember to write your Congressman and Senators and ask them to save NSF's GK12 program, so that we can springboard many other students to such lofty science heights. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Science Education is a National Defense Issue: A Call to Action

One of the most successful programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation is on the chopping block and we need your help to save it. The program is called GK-12 or the Graduate STEM Fellows in Education. This program matches science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM)graduate students with a mentor teacher at a local elementary, middle, high school to assist with improving the science content and serving as a science role model in the classroom. Over the course of the fellowship scientists learn to communicate their research to the kids in the classroom and translate their improved science communication skills to communicating with the public throughout the course of their careers. According to the Save GK-12 website, since its inception in 1999, the GK-12 program has changed the lives of:
7,400 Graduate fellows

5,000 Schools

9,000 Teachers

600,000 K-12 students
This direct line of communication between the education system in the United States and the scientific community is critical in our increasingly technological society. Our children need better math, science and critical thinking skills in order to be prepared to address our coming societal challenges. Having a GK-12 Fellow that is already on the technological front lines facing these challenges provides a unique perspective on the intersection between science and society. The GK-12 fellows are doing cutting edge research that affects almost every aspect of daily life. Energy policy, climate change, species diversity, earthquake science and engineering,  water quality and urban development, astrophysics, agriculture, development of unmanned aircraft, and AIDS vaccine development are just a few of the content areas GK-12 fellows are researching. Many fellows research develops technologies and addresses challenges that Adm. Mullen has cited as critical to National Defense. The true breadth of their research could not be summarized in a blog post and possibly not even in a book.  This program doesn’t imagine the power of having kids being mentored in research by cutting edge scientists, it’s doing it and your children are benefiting from it.

The rationale given for slashing the program from the National Science Foundation’s budget was that Fellows do not spend enough time in the classroom to bond with the students and really influence them in a significant way. I would respectfully beg to differ on this point. As a 2nd yr Fellow in the GK-12 program, I can honestly tell you that my fellowship is all about relationships. Kids often tell me things that they do not tell anyone else. When I sit down to work with a kid, my first question is always, “Tell me what you’re passionate about.” The answers vary: skateboards, music, etc. Inevitably any of these interests can be turned into a science lesson. For example, if your kid loves skateboards, then I try to help him investigate the physics of skateboarding, which will hopefully lead to fewer trips to the doctor for him and his parents. This past year, 9 of the 11 students I work with have entered science fair having completed individual research projects that are largely of their own design and execution.

What you need to ask yourself is whether you would rather your child learns science as a series of facts and worksheets, or whether you want your child to be educated by the strong partnership of a mentor teacher and graduate STEM fellow under GK-12. Then we, the GK12 program ask you to contact your Congressman, Senators, and the Senate and House Appropriations Committees and ask them to save the most successful science education program at NSF from being cut from the 2012 budget.

 You can contact your Congressman and Senators through by typing your zip code.

At the end of the day, what makes our country great is our individual ability as citizens to petition our government for redress. We shape the American democracy and we determine what things the government should spend money on.  Our nation’s future is now and it rests in the hands of our children in the educational systems. Every dollar spent to improve the quality of science education is an investment in your child, in our nation and in our ability to compete successfully today and tomorrow. Please stand up and support the GK12.

For more information on my experience with GK-12, please go here. A former fellow has also posted her experience. Numerous You Tube videos showing the hands-on work in the classroom abound.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

National Science Foundation cancels the GK-12 Fellowship program

This year during the State of the Union Address, the President stated that science education was a priority in the national interest. He made it clear that we need more scientists to deal with an increasingly technological world.

Fast forward to today and imagine my surprise when someone forwards me a Science article that explains that the GK-12 fellowship program, which allowed graduate students to be placed in school classrooms around the country to assist kids and teachers in conducting scientific inquiry in the classroom, was cancelled. Color me shocked. Actually, I think horrified is a better approximation of my emotions. Let me explain.

I am a current NSF GK-12 Fellow. This is my second and final year on the fellowship. I was awarded the fellowship in the second semester of my first year of my PhD program. This was about the same time I was working on writing my proposal for my research. I found that working through explaining the research process to middle school children really helped me focus down on my own research topic and finish my proposal by the end of the summer of my first year. This really helped me to move forward in my research over the summer and get the better part of one paper finished my by my second year of graduate school.

The following school year, I was moved to a high school where I worked with sophomores, juniors and seniors on water quality research.  In the high school where I work, the seniors conduct a year long science research project as a capstone course. Helping the kids work through the inevitable "mandatory floundering" of research toward those moments of enlightenment we all experience as scientists was incredibly rewarding. It also had the unintended benefit of giving me something positive to hold on to when my anxiety caused me to fail my oral comprehensive exams last year. GK-12 gave me a sense of purpose that helped me to keep pushing forward on my research when I felt pretty bleak.

This fall, working with a new set of kids, explaining the research process again, and helping them move through the research process, helped me to get my confidence back and improve my public speaking skills to the point where I could pass my comprehensive exams. I also have students this year who are really interested in geomicrobiology, which has given me the opportunity to shape projects and advise students on all kinds of research questions I find interesting, but otherwise don't have the time to pursue. Additionally, I have been working with a class of undergrads at BIG U who intend to be teachers, performing the same type of advising  on their projects. I feel like I have a better handle on what it takes to be faculty at a R1 institution than some of my compatriots who don't have the opportunities my fellowship has provided. I also do not believe that the GK-12 fellowship has negatively impacted my research skills as suggested in the science article, as I intend to graduate in 4 years with 5 publications, including a methods paper.

The GK-12 fellowship really inspired me to do more and to be better. It made me realize how important it is for me to talk about my science with everyone I meet. A lot of my job in the classroom isn't just to help the kids develop research questions and find ways to answer those questions. My job is first and foremost to listen to the kids, to find out their interests, and to help them see how science and math plays into EVERYTHING, whether it's skateboarding or biofuels. Carl Wieman, associate director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy asserts that one reason the program was cut is that:

  “"The reality is that, under GK-12, the time available for kids to interact with grad students so that both sides could develop a relationship …was probably not enough to achieve the impact that one would have liked to see.."
I really question this assertion, because it is the antithesis of my experience. I have comforted the military child in one of my classes who needed a good cry because she hadn't heard from her Dad who was in Iraq. I felt her pain as only someone in a military family could. She didn't need a scientist that day; she needed a friend who understood what she was going through. We worked on managing her stress so that she could focus on her school work. I have listened to many a kid who is growing up every bit as poor as I was as a kid and I have shared with them my success story and the tools that I found worked to escape poverty. I love those kids and I have celebrated every success and mourned every heartache with them for 2 years now. The truth is that unlike what Mr. Wieman supposes, you cannot teach someone unless you have a trusting relationship with them.

Most Americans don't even know a scientist. They still describe scientists as old, white men in lab coats. They think science either is 1) all figured out already (i.e. science is taught as a series of facts) or that 2) scientists change their minds all the time for no reason. Neither of these views are accurate representations of the truth. Each of these misconceptions affects whether or not young people will consider a career in science. Having a young woman (i.e. me) or a person of color, or someone like my friend Ilya there discussing science and engaging in explaining how and why science is a process has meaning and value.

I am deeply disappointed by this decision. I encourage each and every one of you, whether you are a scientist or not, to write your Congressman and the President and tell them that these programs are critical to our ability to grow future scientists and maintain our preeminence in the scientific arena. I really believe that the GK-12 program is one of the most important things I have ever participated in as a scientist and it is a shame that the relationships GK-12 fellows have built aren't recognized or appreciated by our government, even as they stress the need for better science education.