“A PhD for High School”: partnering with a local high school teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic

To echo many of my fellow Sea Grant Scholars, much has changed since my last post. It feels like COVID-19 is changing the world every day. The pandemic has asked us all – nations, communities, and individuals – to make decisions under great uncertainty. Many of us try to stay informed about best practices, infection rates, and scientific breakthroughs related to COVID-19, but they seem to change before we can even make sense of them. Recently, I read an article in The Atlantic entitled “Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing” (Yong 2020). The article summarizes several major sources of confusion about COVID-19 and explores key miscommunications that have compounded the uncertainty we feel. This pandemic has highlighted the importance of science communication for scientists, our nation, and the world. As I reflect on the role of scientists during this time, I am motivated to a) expand my science communication skills and efforts, and b) identify pathways for scientists to support our local communities.

Like many other field researchers, COVID-19 has caused major disruptions to my sampling season, potentially shifting the focus of my dissertation. It is easy to feel discouraged that I’ve been pulled away from my research – especially this time of year. May marks the beginning of a long and exciting field season to collect juvenile nearshore fishes from offshore moorings and tide pools.

Megan Wilson and Will Fennie (past OSG Malouf Scholar) get ready to snorkel in Port Orford, Oregon, to collect juvenile nearshore fishes. The flag in the background marks the location of a fish aggregating device (called a SMURF: Standard Monitoring Unit for the Recruitment of Fishes) that lies five feet below the surface.

Instead, I’ve chosen to use this time to strengthen and expand my science communication skills by partnering with a local high school teacher, Mr. Andy Bedingfield, to build marine ecology coursework and facilitate project-based learning during the pandemic. I’ve found this partnership to be extremely timely, fulfilling and synergistic – not only do I have to opportunity to practice science communication and education during a time when quality science communication is so desperately needed, but I also feel that I am able to use my training as a scientist to help my community during a time of need. Andy and I are working together for the remainder of Lincoln City High School’s academic year, and we hope to publish an article in the National Science Teaching Association journal so that other teachers can benefit from the coursework we’ve developed and our lessons learned.

Our goals are in this partnership are threefold:

1. Develop a marine ecology curriculum for high school students that can be delivered virtually

Andy and I have been working together for the past two months build online curriculum to meet the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) relevant to his Ecology class. We developed learning outcomes from each Disciplinary Core Idea (e.g. “LS2.A: Ecosystem dynamics, functioning, and resilience”) and identified specific marine ecology concepts that illustrate the core ideas. With this as our roadmap, we then searched for or developed videos and online content to meet each learning outcome. Using open source software like EdPuzzle and ScreenCastify, Andy annotated and personalized the educational videos we found and embedded questions sets in the videos to check for understanding. Andy refers to this part of his course as “The Workout”, where students put in time and effort to build their knowledge base such that they will be capable of carrying out an independent project of their choosing.

2. Engage students in project-based choice learning

Working with Andy and the high school students has shown me that for them, choice = motivation. Andy’s teaching philosophy centers on the idea that children and students are curious scientists by nature, and that a teacher’s role is to provide guidance, structure, and direction to facilitate their scientific process. To this end, Andy asked me to brainstorm several marine ecology projects that both pertain to the Disciplinary Core Ideas and develop NGSS core competencies (e.g. “Use mathematical equations to explain energy transfer”). I generated a list of activities and materials for marine ecology lessons that I had accumulated throughout my undergraduate career, and Andy and I worked together to hone these projects into manageable, grade-appropriate activities for the students. Andy has taught me several key teaching strategies to make projects more manageable for students including “chunking” or only assigning parts of a project at a time (e.g. Week 1 Introduction, Week 2 Methods) and using student examples to show students the caliper of final project we are hoping for, rather than reading them a rubric. The students have several marine ecology projects to choose from: Investigating trade-offs in marine spatial management using SeaSketch, Modeling sustainable fishing in tuna populations, Energy transfer in plankton food webs (thanks to help from the OSU Plankton Ecology Lab), and investigating human impact and resilience in the rocky intertidal zone (thanks to help from the OSU PISCO Lab). Each of these projects can be delivered online, is relevant to local, coastal Oregon ecology, and is flexible to meet each student’s individual interests. Andy refers to this aspect of his course as “a PhD for high school”, and emphasizes the importance of engaging his students in real, tangible science projects instead of canned labs, where they experience the joy of innovation and discovery, and gain confidence in their science identify and ability.

3. Document the process of integrating scientists and researchers into high school education

Andy and I hope to document the lessons learned through this process to facilitate collaborations like ours for other scientists and educators. Thus far, we’ve found that the more interaction the students have with the scientists (me), the better. In oppose to a visiting scientist giving a single lecture, we hope that having the visiting scientist work with students (e.g. office hours) and engage with them about their ideas and interests over the course of several weeks will build the student’s confidence and motivation. Last week, we introduced the projects and this week, we will be working on a literature review and methods description. They will they carry out their projects for two weeks, and complete a final presentation afterward.

I am very excited to continue working with Andy and the students. They are constantly challenging me to communicate my science in relevant and innovative ways. I am grateful for this opportunity to connect to my local coastal community and to inspire, equip, and empower the next generation of marine scientists. Stay tuned for a project update in the coming weeks!

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About Megan Wilson

Pronouns: she/her/hers. PhD Candidate in the Integrative Biology Department at Oregon State University studying marine fish population dynamics, larval ecology, and social ecological systems. Committed to STEM equity and a culturally responsive future in higher education.

1 thought on ““A PhD for High School”: partnering with a local high school teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic

  1. Thanks for your post, Megan! I think your ability to recognize the opportunities during this bizarre time and to shift your focus from field work to science communication shows great resilience as a researcher! If you can’t swim with the SMURFS, next best thing is to talk about SMURFS! It sounds like you have developed an excellent collaborative partnership that creates tremendous learning opportunities for the students and for you and Andy as well. I really look forward to hearing about how this project evolves and if there are any revelations you take away that might influence your research or how you communicate about your work. If you haven’t already seen these, you may be interested in some of the curricula developed by the Oregon Coast STEM Hub as a resource for your “PhD for High School” ecology coursework. https://oregoncoaststem.oregonstate.edu/educators/resources/curriculum

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