At the Texas A&M Ecology & Natural Resources Teaching Area, fire is an important tool in the restoration and management of post oak savannas. (Texas A&M photo by Hayden Smith)
At the Texas A&M Ecology & Natural Resources Teaching Area, fire is an important tool in the restoration and management of post oak savannas.

Research stations across U.S. offer public STEM education

Field stations create unique experiences for public to engage with scientists and see science in action.

The general public and scientists are finding common ground at hundreds of biological field research stations across the nation, according to a Texas A&M University and Colorado State University study.

In addition to offering logistical and research support to scientists doing field work, biological field stations provide informal science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning opportunities to the general public, said Dr. Rhonda Struminger, assistant professor of the practice at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.

Struminger, along with doctoral candidate Rachel Short and assistant professor Dr. Michelle Lawing, all in the Texas A&M ecosystem science and management department, published a paper in the journal BioScience outlining the results of a study with collaborator Dr. Jill Zarestky at Colorado State University.

From banding birds at the Selman Living Lab in Oklahoma to making maple syrup at the Raystown Field Station in Pennsylvania to the "Science Under the Stars" public lectures at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory near Austin, Texas, around 400 stations throughout the U.S. offer a rich variety of outreach activities, according to the announcement from Texas A&M.

“With approximately 78% and 98% of the U.S. population living within 60 and 120 miles of a field station, respectively, these stations have the potential to be key providers of informal STEM education,” Short said.

Struminger said the results of a preliminary survey conducted of U.S. biological field stations indicate that they offer informal learning opportunities to the general public.

“In the study, we propose an informal STEM education framework, which can guide future outreach efforts of field stations and can act as a tool for evaluating current initiatives,” she said.

Additionally, Struminger said, field stations are prioritizing outreach by dedicating personnel and fiscal resources to their outreach programming.

In Ohio, schools take field trips to the Akron University Field Station to learn about habitat restoration, terrestrial ecology and environmental stewardship. In California, bird enthusiasts can take advantage of Palomarin Field Station’s bird banding demonstrations. In Michigan, Wild Wednesdays at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station bring families to the station to learn about a variety of natural phenomena.

These programs attract local and distant communities, depending on what makes the field station’s location special, Struminger said, which demonstrates ways field stations are committed to informal STEM education.

This paper is a product of a funded collaborative grant among researchers at Colorado State University and Texas A&M AgriLife Research. The grant, “Informal Science Learning at Biological Field Stations” is from the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program in the Division of Research on Learning in Formal & Informal Settings.

“We are in the process of collecting more survey data to put our framework to the test,” Lawing said. “So far, we have more than 165 field stations reporting on more than 365 programs that are offered across the U.S.”

These programs, Struminger said, create unique experiences for the public to engage with scientists and see science in action. More information and a map of biological field station locations can be found on the team’s website at https://fieldstationoutreach.info.

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