Geoscience Education

Student-scientist partnerships
Robert Merrill Ross and Paul Gwion Harnik

To understand science, people must do science.

Students in Syracuse and Utica, N.Y., are doing science. They are solving paleontological problems by gathering high-resolution data on ecological and evolutionary trends in Devonian marine communities. Fossils from thick sequences of shales preserved in central New York state have been the focus of decades of study of some of the most controversial and important concepts on the evolution and extinction of life. The students — who are in grades four through nine, many in urban schools — are studying stratigraphic samples collected by their teachers in collaboration with paleontologists. They are gathering data for the Devonian Seas Project, a research partnership at the Paleontological Research Institution in Trumansburg, N.Y., which engages students in authentic inquiry while generating data for ongoing research.

A central claim of recent K-12 science education reform recommendations is that only by participating in authentic science can people truly comprehend what scientists do, and how science investigates the natural world. Concurrently, manipulation of large quantities of scientific data has become possible with rapidly developing information technology. This technology has created an opportunity to engage the help of thousands of individuals — such as students — in the creation of large data sets to answer new scientific questions.

Effective student-scientist research partnerships engage students and their teachers in gathering and analyzing large volumes of data that fewer people could not collect. Research partnerships, if skillfully woven into a framework for learning, provide compelling educational experiences with open-ended inquiry. This kind of inquiry is characteristic of real research, but not always possible through standard classroom activities.

What kinds of scientific problems might be made solvable if researchers could partner with thousands to help collect data? Imagine the outcome for the public understanding of science if research partnerships became commonplace for all K-12 students and teachers.

To increase the scale and impact of research partnerships in Earth sciences, partnerships must be effective and sustainable, and provide benefits that outweigh costs. Geoscientists must be attracted to undertaking research partnerships — through the promise of substantial data, funding and models — if they are to adopt a new way of doing things. Good science must be pre-eminent, or no amount of educational good will keep the scientific community and funders interested. In turn, educators must see real learning relevant to curricular goals and positive changes in student attitudes, and they must feel that the projects are practical to implement. Toward these ends, evaluation is critical. The Devonian Seas Project, for example, is worth pursuing because ongoing analyses of data quality suggest that resulting data are potentially useful, even if relatively “noisy.” At the same time, teachers and outside evaluators have noticed the students making positive shifts in attitude and engaging in more inquiry. Funders, meanwhile, have shown interest in development of an experimental model that integrates research and education in the pre-college classroom.

How can the geoscience community create research partnerships that have national impact? The first way is to broaden the scale of individual partnerships. The GLOBE program, for example, is a model large-scale partnership with international impact. It is a global effort to collect high-resolution environmental data using the services of teachers and their students. Already, the partnership involves hundreds of thousands of students annually in 101 countries. At least 8 percent of U.S. schools have a teacher trained in collecting GLOBE data and using it in the classroom. GLOBE is a collection of projects, and scientists can apply to have data collected for particular research purposes. The data students and teachers collect are reported to GLOBE and are made available on the Web.

Furthermore, the kinds of data students collect are, by design, applicable to broad regions of Earth. Atmospheric chemistry and soil characteristics, for example, can be measured everywhere using a standard protocol and equipment.

The other key component for national impact is to increase the number of partnerships. Few research partnerships can be as large as GLOBE, and they will not become an accepted and commonplace approach to doing science and education unless a large number of additional research partnerships are undertaken.

Our Devonian Seas Project started with a few prototype school programs several years ago, and has built progressively to about 100 classes per year, with plans to expand regionally and into museums. Most partnerships will start with a number of local participants, especially given constraints in funding and human resources. Projects that start small can iron out logistical and design activities before they grow in stages over subsequent years as the project is sculpted by the involvement of scientists, teachers, evaluators, funders and other stakeholders. It is from this point that most of the geoscience community can become involved.

Our advice for those who see potential for developing their own research partnership programs, but are unclear how to begin, is simply this: start small, look for effective models and evaluate. But through it all think big. With ongoing reforms in science education and new technology to help all these threads come together, now is the perfect time to begin planning for programs of regional and national significance.

Ross and Harnik are educator scientists at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Trumansburg, N.Y. Ross is PRI’s director of education (e-mail: and Harnik is the manager of PRI’s student-scientist research partnership program (e-mail:

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