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Grad Research Becomes “Elementary” in Virginia

Jul 17, 2017 | Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, Informed Citizens

It can take decades for research to find its way into middle school lesson plans, but thanks to the education program at Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Reserve, graduate students are able to share their enthusiasm and their estuarine research with teachers virtually in real-time.

Together with colleagues at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Marine Advisory Services, Reserve Educator Sarah Nuss has created the Virginia Scientists and Educators Alliance (VA SEA). Through this program, graduate students received training in lesson plan development based on their research, piloted those lesson plans based on their research in classrooms, and shared these plans with teachers statewide at an expo that took place in April 2017.

“VA SEA allowed me to communicate my research and its significance  to a more general audience and do it in a fun and interactive way,” says graduate researcher Shanna Williamson, whose work focuses on modeling streamflow, sediment, and nutrient input. “Prior to this, the objectives, results, and significance of my research had only been presented to members of the scientific community.”

While explaining research to lay people can be tricky, some students felt it was more than worth the reward. “I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to effectively communicate my research in a usable lesson plan,”  says Taylor Goeltz, whose research focuses on participatory modeling processes. “But I saw the spark of recognition in teachers eyes; they got what I was trying to convey. Getting affirmation that I had developed a tool that would be useful for them was extremely gratifying.”

“The most challenging part of translating my research was adapting it to the correct audience and finding the most engaging way to relay the message,” observes Amanda Laverty, a microbial ecologist interested in marine plastic pollution as a potential vector for bacteria and human pathogens. “It was particularly nice to hear that my lesson plan could be easily adapted to age groups beyond the one I tailored it to. This project was a great opportunity to inspire students to be interested in the ocean and the impact that we all have on it.”

SWMP datasets, access to coastal lands for data collection, and strong connections to the general public made the experience of working with the NERRS an added benefit for the students.  “I love working with the NERR staff, who are all very welcoming and helpful,” says Amanda Knoblach, who is studying carbon cycling in marshes. “I also love that there is so much additional data collected at my site that is available to anyone who would like to use it—meteorological, water quality, nutrients— and that my site is maintained and nearly pristine.”

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