Understanding Earth science is fundamental to understanding natural processes, particularly evolution, and is key to making informed decisions about current scientific concerns such as global climate change, resource depletion, and energy transitions (Bell 2009, Dobzhansky 1973). When natural disasters occur (e g., hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, droughts) or when local populations are asked to make crucial decisions regarding issues that involve Earth science (e.g., drilling for oil or natural gas, clear-cutting forests, designating protected natural areas, building a dam), the public must have an understanding of, and realistic expectations about, Earth science information; we must have an Earth science literate public (Kolstø 2001).
The philosophy in the past has been that elementary through high-school education is responsible for teaching and engaging children in science, thus creating a science literate public (Bell 2009). High-school students (i.e., the segment of the population from 14 to 18 years of age) are in a phase of their lives that is very important for the construction of their social conscience and career choices, making them a desirable target audience for science education initiatives (Gloeckner 1991). But it is also at this age that science literacy begins to decrease, as compared with K-5 students (National Science Board 2010). Research in the US shows that, although students in elementary school rank high in science literacy, science literacy drops significantly starting in middle school and continuing through high school (National Center for Education Statistics U.S. Department of Education 2010). In Italy, research on science literacy (Program for International Student Assessment 2010) ranked Italian 15-year-old students below the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (National Science Board 2010). In fact, both Italian and US students scored in the bottom quartile; US students ranking 19th and Italian students ranking 21st of the 25 developed countries surveyed (National Science Board 2010; tables one to eight). Furthermore, the same study found that only 15.6% of bachelor’s degrees were awarded in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in the US, and the overall share of degrees awarded in STEM fields actually shrank during the period surveyed, from 2003 to 2007. Meanwhile, China awarded nearly half of its first university degrees in STEM fields (46.7%), South Korea awarded 37.8% and Germany awarded 28.1% (National Science Board 2010; tables two to thirty-five).
Most K-12 schools do not have the extensive science collections and resources that would facilitate a better understanding of Earth science. These types of large, comprehensive collections are usually housed in universities and natural history museums where they provide a hands-on, inquiry-based means of participation in science. Unfortunately, most researchers at universities rarely, if ever, have the time or the expertise to organize and implement education to K-12 schools. Most museums, however, consider this their mission and have extensive outreach programs and years of experience engaging school groups in science. Bringing together science-rich cultural institutions and schools has been shown to substantially support children in realizing the relevance of science to their lives, and that they can engage in science to contribute to their communities (Bevan et al. 2010 and references therein). Informal science educators - such as educators from natural history museums or science centers - are specifically trained to communicate science to the public and school groups using collections and exhibitions. Because these educators understand the formal classroom environment, as well as how to engage people in science through collections and exhibitions, informal science educators are excellent candidates for facilitating collaborations between university and museum collections and resources and high-school classes to specifically engage this demographic in science and science careers.
Creating collaborations between universities, museums and local schools to engage high-school students in Earth science, and help them consider science as a possible vocation, thus seems a logical method of helping to alleviate many of the outlined issues. Moreover, learning often occurs in environments in which adults and peers guide students through active participation and assistance (Collins et al. 1989; Rogoff 1990). But certainly one of the best ways to gain knowledge about a subject is to teach others - as Frank Oppenheimer said, ‘to teach is to learn’. By involving students in the public communication of a science topic, they have the opportunity to learn as they develop their content and vehicle of communication.
There are very few published studies or published examples of these types of collaborations. Although not involving students teaching science, two examples of similar partnerships are the SPARK! program in Philadelphia and the WATCH program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. SPARK! is a National Science Foundation-funded collaboration between the Graduate School of Education and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Philadelphia city school district. The program, which focuses on engineering design, aims to help students understand design parameters for animal habitat construction (see Spark 2008). The WATCH program includes a three-week summer session where students work in teams to visit, study and restore habitats of the Pajaro River Watershed in California. The program also includes a school-year environmental science class where students participate in ongoing research of the watershed. In a 2006 study, pre- and post-surveys of 30 WATCH program students - most of whom were Latino - found ‘statistically significant changes in students’ relationships to local ecologies, including their awareness of various environmental issues, and their import and impact for local communities’ (Bevan et al. 2010). A published evaluation for the WATCH program also showed that 62% of WATCH participants reported that the program influenced their decision to go to college, as well as having an influence on their local conservation awareness and action (Parsons et al. 2011). It should be noted that these programs each have significant financial backing: SPARK! from an $800,000 National Science Foundation grant, and WATCH from an institutional endowment, from which $6.7 million went to education and visitor programs in 2011 (Monterey Bay Aquarium 2012). While these two studies do show that informal science educators can bridge the gap between university science research and local high-school students, clearly more examples need to be produced, and studies performed, to prove the efficacy and viability of this model.
The goals for this project were to (a) increase awareness among students about their local university’s Earth Science department; (b) engage local high-school students in communicating Earth science to the public; and (c) create a template for a successful collaboration between a local university Earth Science department, informal science educators and local high-school students to design, manufacture and implement an Earth science exhibition.