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IE makes hands-on geoscience learning possible for Northeastern NC’s students and teachers

December 14, 2020 people in park

The UNC Institute for the Environment recently received $319,000 to connect students and teachers in Northeastern North Carolina with field-based geoscience learning opportunities. Geoscience Teaching Outdoors in NC, also known as GET OUT in NC, will take advantage of the region’s unique coastal ecosystem and partnerships with nearby institutions.

“We plan to provide teachers with hands-on experiences in the field, connecting with geoscience research, so they can replicate some of that experience with their students in the classroom,” says Sarah Yelton, environmental education and citizen science program manager for IE’s Center for Public Engagement with Science.

The program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, will engage with approximately 40 teachers, and by extension 7,200 students, in two cohorts over three years. Yelton says the program will help teachers mentor students and encourage their interest in pursuing careers in fields like water quality, watershed management, geology and renewable energy.

Kathleen Gray, director of IE’s Center for Public Engagement with Science, is the principal investigator; and Mike Piehler, IE’s director, is a co-principal investigator. Gray and Piehler will advise on connections to current science and help to engage geoscience researchers across the state, while Yelton manages more day-to-day aspects of the project, including teacher professional development.

“We are excited to build on an existing partnership with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and leverage the dynamic educational resources in the coastal region in programming to bring teachers and diverse youth into geoscience learning and ultimately into the workforce,” says Gray.

Partners in the region include the Greenville location of the Museum, NC State Parks and UNC-Chapel Hill’s field sites in Morehead City and the Outer Banks. Partners plan to leverage resources available in the Triangle and throughout eastern NC, connecting teachers and students with existing industry and academia.

“In my teaching, I have seen a real deficit in the understanding of the geologic system of North Carolina,” says Maria McDaniel, director of education for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences—Contentnea Creek and Greenville. “ Learning how the mountains are connected to the beaches and how the different parts of our state are connected to each other geologically explains so much in the science world and opens up pathways to other branches of science.  This grant will give a much-needed perspective to teachers so they can plan great lessons for their students and turn students on to careers in the geosciences.”

Teachers will certainly be getting their hands dirty.

According to Yelton, teachers will have opportunities to create stream profiles and test water quality in the coastal plain, see first-hand the impacts of saltwater intrusion and explore the potential for wave energy on the Outer Banks, and compare soil profiles in the salt marsh to look for evidence of barrier island migration. They will visit the Aurora Fossil Museum and the nearby phosphate mine to explore this window into the past and the use of natural resources.

The NC Museum of Natural Sciences will lead the student science enrichment component of the project, conducting a week-long summer camp where students will replicate many of the activities their teachers have participated in. Over thirty high schoolers will participate in these summer camps.

“Like teachers in the professional development program, youth will be in the lab and in the field, examining climate impacts currently being experienced in eastern NC and evaluating potential solutions as they learn about different geoscience career pathways,” Yelton says.

The project team began meeting in December, and the first teacher professional development program will take place in the summer of 2021 and again in the summer of 2022. Summer camps will take place in 2022 and 2023. Nothing compares to first-hand experiences with science, like the ones provided by GET OUT in NC, according to Yelton.

people outside

“There’s no substitute for actually having your feet in boots in a stream, examining how erosion is altering the landscape, to help you see how impacts may be felt downstream,” Yelton says. “These tangible experiences bring classroom learning to life in a truly authentic way, and foster connections to scientists, industry partners, and other educators that may not otherwise be available to these teachers and youth.”

“This is an exciting project and I feel fortunate to be a part of it,” says Piehler. “Kathleen Gray’s Center for Public Engagement with Science does trailblazing work and this project is another example of their tremendous contributions to advancing translation of environmental research to K12 settings.”

Story by Ellie Heffernan

Ellie Heffernan is a junior at UNC majoring in journalism and environmental studies. During her time at UNC, she has written for The Daily Tar Heel, volunteered with Musical Empowerment as a teacher and leadership team member, and been a part of the Service and Leadership Residential Learning Program.