Perspectives Online

In-depth Inquiry - Extension’s T.I.M.E. program buys time for high-school students to practice ‘real’ science. By Art Latham

Edenton student Kelsey Lichtenwalner, who is now an NCSU freshman, studied the effects of nitrates and phosphate concentrations on shrimp populations.
Photo by Ginger Moreloch

Transylvania County educators faced a formidable challenge in 2006.

Although county high-school students were scoring well on end-of-course science tests, few graduates had pursued science-related careers; nor had a county high-school student entered a science fair for several years.

Brevard students Tyler Mullen (left) and Chelsea Johnson display their research poster.
Photo by Art Latham
Since a new state science course curriculum initiated in the 2006-2007 school year mandated a move to a scientific inquiry-based curriculum, the pressure was on. But teachers had little time to incorporate guided, open-ended inquiry into their classes.

Then a North Carolina Cooperative Extension agent with a long-time involvement in various county schools’ science projects had an idea she hoped would encourage students who don’t care for rote memorization of tables and formulas; one that would bolster their skills in hypothesis development, observation and data and results recording.

“The U.S. science curriculum in general is said to be a mile wide and an inch deep,” says Mary Arnaudin, Cooperative Extension agent for 4-H youth development for Transylvania County. “Students needed to experience doing ‘real’ science, more than the ‘cookbook’ labs which rush students and teachers to cover the material for the end-of-course tests.

“We wanted them to have time to dig deep into questions derived from their own observations and gain the competencies needed to find the answers to their own questions. And we saw an opportunity for teachers to be ‘co-learners’ alongside students, looking for answers together, without the pressure of having to provide the answers.”

So in 2006, Arnaudin and Jennifer Williams (both N.C. State University alumnae), Brevard High School’s science department head, helped launch the county’s “It’s about time to do real science: Time to Inquire, Matter and Explore” (T.I.M.E.) program. Through Arnaudin, 4-H partnered with the county schools and others — notably the N.C. Agricultural Foundation and The Science House at N.C. State — to score an $180,000 three-year Burroughs Wellcome grant.

The funds, which also allow students and teachers to buy science-related equipment, pay a dividend to the local community, helping high schoolers learn scientific inquiry through initiating, designing and implementing authentic environmental research projects based in the French Broad River Basin, which includes Transylvania County.

Hands-on lab experience, including recording a crawdad’s growth, is at the heart of an inquiry-based curriculum.
Photo by Art Latham
Topics addressed by the T.I.M.E. students indicate how seriously they take their studies.

For instance, during the past school year, students and their teacher/mentors looked at the impact of impervious surfaces, pH, temperatures, urbanization and a new water treatment plant on the county’s waterways. One student study involved gathering baseline data for an extremely large, completely aquatic salamander called a hellbender, used as an indicator species to monitor a waterway’s biological health.

Arnaudin says she and co-director Williams “have a passion for creating this environment for students and teachers to experience real science and it seems to be working.

“At the close of our first year, we had five science teacher mentors,” she says, “with 12 juniors and eight freshmen who had done original research on questions they came up with. And juniors mentor freshmen, helping with the ninth graders’ transition to high school.”

In May, the first year’s fledgling scientists presented their findings at a public program at the Transylvania County Library, with Chesley Huskins, Brevard High School media specialist, coordinating the event and helping prep the students.

Initiating the program was a natural outgrowth of Arnaudin’s science-related work in her extension job: helping judge science fairs, sharing inquiry-based teaching methods with 4-H agents and teachers, and training high-school students to develop and lead science activities with elementary students in after-school programs.

(Top Photo) Brevard High School student Gray Jacobsen works on his environmental research project. (Bottom Photo) T.I.M.E. student Jessica Good (left) shares her knowledge of macroinvertebrates with a Brevard after-school student.
Top Photo by Art LAtham
Bottom Photo by Mary Arnaudin
“From my 4-H experiences,” says Arnaudin, “I knew I wanted to help students develop life skills as well as do real science, and to connect them to their community so they would feel that they and their findings really matter to others, such as scientists doing research in our area and local citizens.”

The Transylvania group collaborates with student researchers in Edenton guided by The Science House’s Colleen Karl. The Edenton group has studied Bennett’s Millpond, a cypress swamp, for five years. An Edenton trip last spring provided Transylvania County T.I.M.E. students and mentors with early hands-on environmental research training in water quality data collection, area hydrology, meteorology and aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna. Students also learned how to use GPS technology with Betsy-Jeff Penn 4-H Educational Center staff on their way home. Students and leaders from both programs continue their conversations over The Science House Forum, an online discussion group.

In Edenton, where several 4-H’ers participate in the project, Kelsey Lichtenwalner, an entering N.C. State freshman, used her Millpond study, “The Effects of High Concentrations of Nitrates and Phosphates on Shrimp Populations,” as her 4-H presentation. It won first prize at district level this year, says Ginger Morelock, Cooperative Extension’s 4-H youth development agent for Chowan County.

Transylvania County students and teachers involved in the 2008-09 school year’s project already have participated in workshops to begin the program’s second school-year cycle.

After the first-year students presented their findings in May, the next batch of T.I.M.E. students attended a week-long June field work orientation session with research scientists, including several from the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center at Mills River, who shared their work with students. Michelle Benigno, Asheville Science House outreach educator and another N.C. State alumna, helped plan and facilitate the inquiry sessions at the camp.

The orientation classes covered possible pitfalls in experimenting, technology issues, enzymes and other topics. It also demonstrated that the program’s goal of sharing information with the public is being met: Three area newspapers covered the sessions and Asheville’s WLOS-TV ran a video clip of the activities during its “Never Stop Learning” segment.

Students visited the French Broad River at Rosman to learn about a hellbender study and about macroinvertebrates. Scientists use a few water-pollution-sensitive macroinvertebrates — mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies — as biological indicators of watershed health. Students honed observation skills at the river and elsewhere, and collected tiny arthropod-related tardigrades or “water bears,” on which they later trained microscopes in a science inquiry lab. They also completed trial experimental designs, collected and analyzed project data, learned about invasive species and storm-water and erosion studies and control.

They met at Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education, north of Brevard, for a discovery hike on which they practiced thinking like a scientist. That included lessons on bird watching and salamander study and other environmental observations. They heard a lecture from Doug Besler, coldwater research coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and toured a trout hatchery, focusing on reintroduction of native mountain brook trout and triploid trout, which resemble normal fish, but are sterile.

Later that day, they learned how to read scientific literature, including a paper by Dr. Anthony LeBude, another N.C. State alumnus, who is assistant professor of extension and research for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Horticultural Science Department. LeBude studies plant production for the green industry at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research and Extension Center.

The final day, students visited the research station, where they participated in an experiment on codling moths’ competitive behavior on apples with Dr. Vonny Barlow, post-doctoral research associate in the College’s Entomology Department. Students also developed a hypothesis from a fish kill case study.

During T.I.M.E. day camp this past summer, Fallon Newell worked on a hypothesis based on observations of the French Broad River in Rosman.
Photo by Mary Arnaudin
Arnaudin says, “The researchers at Fletcher have been really supportive. Some students are still going over there to participate in scientific experiments, and they can use the experience to give them ideas for posing their own research question.”

Once they choose a hypothesis, students must explain how their topic relates to the French Broad River basin’s condition.

Arnaudin, Williams and the teacher/mentors will encourage students to enter this academic year’s science fair, and juniors can convert their work to use as their senior project, required for high-school graduation.

“It’s not about the results, it’s about the process,” says Doug Odom, Brevard High School principal. “The scientific process comes through in all the presentations these students make.

“The facts will change,” he says, “but the process will stay the same.”

And that might pretty much sum up why the approach to education of Cooperative Extension agents such as Arnaudin is so successful at disseminating research-based information to the public.