Performing innovative scientific research, communicating that research to the public, and educating future scientists to do the same are the three cornerstones for advancing science education. As our climate continues to rapidly change it becomes crucial that undergraduate science education in the United States train the next generation of STEM scientists to conduct innovative research to meet these challenges, and to produce a scientifically literate public who can understand important scientific issues. Recent reports suggest that neither goal is being attained in full, and that declining enrollments in STEM disciplines over the next decade will lead to a decline in STEM scientists nationwide. A related concern is how we, as educators, develop the undergraduate students who do choose to enter STEM disciplines and follow in our footsteps.
The current paradigm of undergraduate science education is not optimized to reach these three goals. Research, education, and outreach are rarely taught in an integrated fashion creating large gaps between these fields. Why create artificial distinctions, and why delay training in the methods of outreach and teaching? Science is more than gaining field or laboratory experience and skills – it is asking scientific questions, communicating scientific results to the wider public, and educating the next generation of scientists to do the same.
To address these concerns and seed a cultural change in STEM education that places early, consistent, and simultaneous emphasis on science research, science communication, and science education, the BURECS program will engage a cohort of 15-20 first-year students annually from three colleges at Boston University: the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Communication, and the School of Education. The interdisciplinary team of students will work together with faculty advisors and student mentors throughout the year-and-a-half long program that is designed to use climate-change research as a catalyst to link STEM research with science communication and science education.
There are four components to the program: a university-wide seminar series on climate change; a hands-on laboratory course in BU’s Experimental Permafrost Lab; a summer internship program, and fieldwork in Antarctica - either through direct deployment to the Transantarctic Mountains or through real-time, virtual fieldwork in BU’s Digital Image Analysis Lab – the latter component is analogous to NASA’s mission control room during the Apollo Program.
The fall seminar series is designed to highlight STEM research in climate science, but it also includes lectures from specialists in science communication and science education. The students read materials before each lecture, deconstruct the lectures via videotape, and then visit the labs of each speaker. They also may intern with any of the speakers during the summer months.
The spring laboratory course contains three modules. In the science module, students build stem skills by conducting experiments on geological samples from Antarctica. In the communication module, students develop skills in media production and writing, and create outreach products that translate their experimental findings into products understandable to the general public. Then in the education module, middle-school teachers come to the lab and, together with the students, translate the experimental results into workable lesson plans. The students then travel to participating schools and help administer the lessons.
The students further what they have learned in the seminar series and hands-on laboratory courses by participating in summer internship opportunities. Students can build relationships with professionals from affiliated schools, companies, and organizations that best suit their interests.
The expedition to Antarctica, whether virtual or real, is an exciting element of the program. Students interested in atmospheric evolution might find themselves drilling into ancient buried ice and analyzing gas bubbles back in the lab. Those with a more biological bent might wish to examine terrestrial evidence for tundra extinction 14 million years ago. No matter the project, the students will use a vast array of scientific instruments and techniques, including ground penetrating radar, LiDAR terrain analyses, time lapse imaging, strain analysis, and so on. In using these techniques, and in developing STEM skills, the students experience the full integration of technology, spatial reasoning, problem solving, and application of geological concepts to real-world problems.
The mission control team back at BU plays an equally important role in this research. Because these students have access to real-time satellite imagery in BU's Digital Image Analysis Lab, they can help the field team in Antarctica by assisting with sampling strategy, plan locations for field traverses, and highlight key areas to avoid or visit based on seasonal snow cover. Importantly, they will also analyze raw data, returning to the field team finished products for subsequent analysis and discussion in the field.
All student HHMI researchers gather in the late Fall to share ideas and results, discuss research opportunities, and plan for new pathways in climate change research.