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Program Stresses Rigor, Relevance in Science
Sarah Dawson (l.), director of the Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment, and Suzanna Richter, adjunct assistant professor of geosciences and scholar-in-residence at the Wohlsen Center
For most members of the Franklin & Marshall community, the summer months offer a break from the classroom and the things that go along with it: assigned reading, papers, exams and grading. But for Sarah Dawson and Suzanna Richter, school was in session—and “intensity” was the name of the game.
Dawson, director of the Wohlsen Center for the Sustainable Environment, and Richter, adjunct assistant professor of geosciences and scholar-in-residence at the Wohlsen Center, led 80 hours of content-deepening professional development for 30 high school and middle school teachers as part of “Project ARRMS: Achieving Rigor and Relevance in Math and Science.” F&M served as the project’s science institute, delivering content through the lens of environmental science while highlighting key biology and chemistry concepts and competencies.
The College’s role in the project resulted from its partnership with Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, which received a $587,925 grant in May from the Math and Science Partnership, a nationally funded grant program. The project included a host of organizations, including public school districts throughout Lancaster and Lebanon Counties; five private schools; three colleges, including F&M; and several local businesses.
Carol de Wet, associate dean of the faculty and professor of geosciences, and Dick Fluck, associate dean of the faculty and the Dr. E. Paul and Frances H. Reiff Professor of Biology, played key roles in helping IU 13 to craft the proposal that led to the grant.
During the weeks of July 26 and Aug. 9, Dawson and Richter led nearly double the amount of class time they would teach for a single course in a semester, without labs.
“A major emphasis was to make science more relevant to students,” Richter says. “If you do that, they’re more willing to listen. We pulled out interesting case studies and generated a wealth of discussion. A couple of times a day, you’d hear the teachers say, 'I never knew that.’”
Dawson and Richter say there were no “typical” days during the two weeks of classes; each class was a different adventure in science. One day, the teachers traveled to Schuylkill County to visit the Ashland coal tunnel and Centralia, learning about acid mine drainage and the role of geology in uncontrolled coal fires. They also discussed the exposure risks associated with working in coal mines.
The group also spent a day at Millport Conservancy, where they explored how biological and chemical indicators reflect changes in the health of streams. Millport offered an opportunity to relate forest and soil carbon storage to the carbon footprint of humans.
“We decided from the get-go to focus on sustainability issues,” Dawson says. “I think we should start teaching children about these issues from the very beginning. By the time most students are in college, they've already decided many of the things that are important to them. The students who take courses dealing with conservation and sustainability are already largely on board with those principles. It's a little like preaching to the choir.”
The goal, Dawson and Richter say, was to give teachers the tools to teach students about environmental science in a different way. If the teachers cannot afford to take their students to places such as Centralia and Millport, they now have the ability to improvise by doing similar lessons near their schools and even in their classrooms.
“For us, it was rewarding for the teachers to see, to do, and then be motivated to go on to teach their students,” Richter says. “They had a hands-on opportunity to see and discuss activities for their specific field.”
Now that the course is over, Dawson and Richter have a chance to look back on their whirlwind summer of preparation and teaching.
“The whole idea was community outreach,” Dawson says. “By working with local school teachers, we’ve tried to emphasize a relationship between F&M and the community.”