Reflections and Take-Aways on My Outreach Experience

Earlier this spring, I delivered my activity for the spring Challenge Events, hosted by OSU’s SMILE (Science & Math Investigative Learning Experiences) program, at the Marine Geology Repository (MGR). Over the course of two days, I guided ~60 high school students, ~100 elementary school students, and ~25 K-12 teachers through my hour-long lesson.

When students first arrived, I introduced them to the MGR and talked briefly about my experience as a woman in geoscience. I encouraged them to stick with STEM and pursue their dream careers. I then began the demonstration with a ~10-minute presentation about Oregon salt marshes, ecosystem services, threats to coastal areas, and how salt marshes record history. I then broke the students up into three groups of ~7 at three different tables, each with similar materials. Each table had a sediment core from a different Oregon salt marsh that displayed a 1700 Earthquake tsunami deposit (Picture 1). The students were able to touch the cores and look at samples under microscopes. After walking the students through a few lines of reasoning about where they observe the tsunami deposit based on visual changes, differences in grain size, and what they could observe on the microscopes, I led an experiment to compare carbon content within the sediment core. First, I had students predict which parts of the core had the most carbon, and which parts had the least amount of carbon. They then took three samples from the core and placed them into beakers. I placed these beakers on a hotplate and added hydrogen peroxide. After a few seconds, the samples began to bubble. We then debriefed the experiment, assessing whether their hypotheses were correct and why that was (or was not) the case. If there was time left, I encouraged the students to walk around the classroom and see the other cores for comparison to their own (they varied quite a lot). After each group had finished the experiment, we came back together as a whole group and I asked them a couple of questions: What was something cool that you saw? Did everyone find that you had a tsunami deposit? What did you predict would happen in your experiment? What did you actually see? Why do you think that was the case? Following this, the remainder of the time (~5 – 15 min) was spent touring the core lab facility, until they were transported to their next activity.

Picture 1. Activity set up.

I wanted to highlight some of my takeaways from the demonstrations in no particular order.

First, I learned that I have to be flexible and capable of altering my lesson plan in the moment. This requires constant assessment of how my audience is receiving information. If the material is too confusing or jargon-heavy, I need to slow down, simplify, and explain. Some of the groups found certain aspects of the demonstrations more interesting than others and so I was constantly altering the activity. I was really glad that I scheduled the tour at the end because we were able to extend this portion if we had finished earlier than expected or cut this portion short if we were running low on time.

Picture 2. Two students excited about touching 300-year-old, tsunami sand.

This may seem trivial, but the time of day really affects engagement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that both students and teachers were the least engaged directly after lunch and at the very end of the day. I would watch people’s eyes glaze over if I spoke for too long or attempted to engage them in a difficult subject. During these times, I also noticed that the students were more poorly behaved – distracting other students or engaging a bit too roughly with the demonstration materials. I was also much more energetic and enthusiastic in the middle of the day. In the mornings I was nervous and a little out of practice. By the end of the day, I was tired and ready for dinner.

Everyone loves looking under microscopes. Even though I rarely look under the microscope for my own research, I will always incorporate microscopes into future demonstrations. The MGR has a number of very simple stereoscopes that were perfect for students to see the sediment up close. Some of the students were able to find foraminifera and Radiolaria (Picture 3). One student got so excited by it, that we preserved his Radiolaria between two pieces of packing tape so he could keep it.

Picture 3. Students trying to find Radiolaria and foraminifera.

It seemed like students were unfamiliar with salt marshes in their state, or the fact that Oregon is an active subduction zone that experiences large earthquakes. Despite this, they picked up the information quickly and I was constantly pleasantly surprised with their depth of questioning. Multiple students came up to me and said they wanted to become geologists when they were older – these were certainly the most rewarding experiences.

So, I think I was able to accomplish my goals:

✓ describe how sediment cores are collected in marine environments and how these samples are stored and processed at the MGR

✓ discuss the unique features of Oregon’s estuaries, the services they provide, and the threats they face

✓ visually analyze and compare salt marsh stratigraphy

✓ identify tsunami sand layers and place them within the context of Cascadia seismic history

I won’t know whether I’ve achieved my broader goal of influencing kids to pursue careers in STEM; however, I feel confident that I piqued their interest in geosciences.

Moving forward with my OSG Malouf Scholarship, I plan to present at Corvallis’s Di Vinci Days. Also, I will submit my lesson plan and materials to the MGR so that they are able to continue using my outreach activity. I’ll also be looking into ways to share my lesson plan with a broader audience, such as Carleton College’s SERC (the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College) program.

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4 thoughts on “Reflections and Take-Aways on My Outreach Experience

  1. This is great, Erin! Thanks so much for reporting back on how this all went; it sounds like a tremendous learning experience for you as well as all your participants. It’s really cool that one of the students got to take his radiolaria home!

  2. I didn’t know that you could touch the cores! That is sooo cool. Did this teaching experience give you empathy for professors and other educators (or provide perspective on your TA work)? Admittedly, college students are a bit different than younger kids…

  3. Oh, it gave me so much empathy for K-12 educators! I spent hours and hours developing a 1-hour lesson plan and was exhausted after both days of constantly standing, talking, and corralling children. I truly don’t know how teachers prep an entire day of lessons, deliver the lessons, and grade every single school day. That being said, the elementary and high schoolers on average were way more engaged and enthusiastic than college students. So though tiring, it was the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve had.

  4. Thanks for this response, Erin. Teachers survive because of summer vacation :-)

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