University of Vermont

New Program Connects Vermont Teachers to UVM Science Research

teachers evaluate zebra mussels
On the Melosira, Vermont high school and middle school teachers get their hands on UVM research in progress.

“Who’s ready to get muddy?” Professor Ellen Marsden grins, rubs her hands together and bounces a little on her feet. As dubious an invitation as that may seem, consider her audience: a group of middle and high school science and math teachers looking to get their hands dirty digging into UVM research.

Moments later, the teachers are crowded around a work station on UVM’s Lake Champlain research vessel, the Melosira, sifting zebra mussels from a muddy bucket, sorting them, separating the dead from the living and arranging them in groups according to their approximate age. The data they’re collecting are part of an effort to take stock of the existing spread of the invasive, nonnative mussel. Scientists believe that zebra mussel populations will decline in Lake Champlain soon, but that’s not good news. A more harmful invasive may soon arrive, the quagga mussel, and replace and exceed the zebra mussels — an unfortunate change that’s already under way on the Great Lakes.

The work of the 11 Vermont teachers doesn’t end, though, once the buckets are sorted. That’s just the jumping off point to a conversation about how science practice — and first-hand experiences like they’ve just had — can be brought back to their classrooms. They came to UVM in late June for the pilot year of the CREST program, the Champlain Research Experience for Students and Teachers, created by Regina Toolin, associate professor of science education.

A main goal of CREST is to help teachers implement the latest changes in the way science is taught nationally as recommended by the Next Generation Science Standards, released in 2013. Vermont was one of 26 lead state partners in the national project, which, boiled down, renews emphasis on science practices and lessens emphasis on memorization of content. Watching scientists in action and participating in the work themselves gets the teachers’ ideas flowing for how to incorporate those experiences and implement the standards’ other key features when school starts in August.

One of those other key features of the new standards are “crosscutting concepts,” or ideas found across the sciences — for example: cause and effect, patterns, stability and change. Environmental science, Toolin says, is a perfect focus for the CREST program, since the environment is also an area of study where the sciences converge — from chemistry to biology to geology.

In addition to research on the lake with Marsden, the teachers ventured out on Shelburne Pond with Jason Stockwell, director of the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Lab, to learn about that body of water’s intense blue-green algal blooms. Returning to the lab at the ECHO Center, they considered the data related to temperature, time, depth, and oxygen levels, applying those crosscutting concepts to a real-world problem they had just paddled canoes through.

Essex High School science teacher Tory Couture, who registered for CREST for a chance to think more about the integration of the new standards in her classes, says the week-long program is a refreshing take on professional development. “You’re not just talking about pedagogy; you’re doing it.”

That’s the heart of the program, according to Toolin, who asserts that, “In order for students to do it, teachers have to experience it.” As part of the program, the teachers are creating their own projects to implement in the coming school year, with curricular support from the program’s six faculty members from disciplines including education, computer science and natural resources.

It’s also a goal of the program to improve STEM education at Vermont schools serving low-income populations. CREST has funding from the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) through its GEAR UP program, which supports 53 Vermont schools that meet federal income requirements. GEAR UP funds a number of initiatives that encourage students to pursue post-secondary education. This is the first time it’s partnered with a STEM-specific program.

“What we’re hoping is that students will get excited about STEM careers,” says VSAC’s GEAR UP manager Laurie Berryman, acknowledging the ripple effect the energized teachers, representing eight schools around the state, will have on their students. By funding CREST, Berryman says, “We get to make a change where it counts — by changing the culture of schools.”

Burlington High School teacher Molly Heath is a believer in the hands-on science education modeled at CREST. Reflecting on the trip to Shelburne Pond, she acknowledges what was true for her and what is likely to be true for her students: “You have a connection,” she says. “You’ve seen it, you’ve experienced it — you’re invested.”