SST, PAR, chlorophyll, sea ice…oh my! – a story behind a teacher-scientist partnership

We interviewed Matt Fichter, a Palmer LTER RET, and Nicole Waite to hear a bit more about their teacher-scientist partnership as they developed a data-focused lesson plan for middle school earth and space science class during the summer of 2016.

The Data Nugget: Now you SEA me… now you don’t

Explore multiple variables to answer environmental change questions while diving into the marine climate around the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) through the Palmer Longer Term Ecological Research project. Comparing data from solar radiation, sea surface temperature, and chlorophyll-a to sea ice coverage over the past 30 years, students explore environmental change over time around the WAP.  

Matt Fichter

Matt Fichter, Hillside Avenue School

Teacher Partner: Matt Fichter

  • What school do you teach at, how big is it, and is it an urban/suburban/rural school? – Matt currently teaches at Hillside Avenue School in Cranford, NJ. The overall school population is approximately 750 students which encompasses Kindergarten through 8th Grade. The school setting is suburban and is considered a walking school. This implies that the vast majority of students walk to school from the nearby neighborhood that surrounds the building. It has proven to be a fantastic environment to work in, as support for teachers, students, and staff comes from administration as well as the community.
  • How many years have you been teaching? – Matt is currently in his 4th year of teaching 6th Grade Science.
  • What course(s) and grade level(s) do you teach? – Matt teaches 6th grade students Earth and Space Science. His student population is 132 for the 2016-17 school year and has ranged from 125-170 over his 4 years.
nicole waite

Nicole Waite, Rutgers University

Scientist Partner: Nicole Waite

  • Where do you work? – Nicole currently works for the Center for Ocean Observing Leadership, Dept. Marine and Coastal Sciences, Rutgers University. She does the field work of her job at to Palmer Station, Antarctica
  • How long have you been working on this project? – Nicole has been working on the Palmer LTER project for 2 years.
  • What is your research interest? – Broadly, Nicole is interested in coastal marine ecosystems, with a particular interest in how the chemistry and biology of these environments are interrelated. A main driver of her research interests is how humans are connected to, impact, and depend on the oceans. For example, she is interested in research that focuses for example on climate change. Currently, her research focuses on phytoplankton ecology along the Western Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most rapidly warming places on Earth.
zodiac on water

Collecting samples via a zodiac off of Palmer Research Station, Antarctica.

About the partnership to develop the Data Nugget:

  • What data were you originally excited to include in your classroom? – Matt commented that any type of data is valuable to introduce to students, since up until this point in their educational careers science has dominantly been taught as a fact-based subject. Though this is important, students would certainly benefit from a more practical/applicable approach to science. The use of real-world data is a great component to have in any scientific classroom instruction. He was really excited to include Polar data on sea ice coverage, solar radiation, chlorophyll levels, as well as sea surface temperatures.
  • What did you want your students to take away? – Students have a general understanding of climate change; however, he would love to see students interpret data on their own and generate their OWN understanding of what the data shows. That’s what Matt hopes they take away from working with data.
  • What data were you able to provide to the teacher to help support the development of their idea to bring the data into the classroom? – Nicole helped Matt get Palmer Station Weather Data (specifically PAR and Solar Radiation) for his students. There is a lot of data, so she helped to parse it down for him by finding the daily averages of each variable from 2-minute weather data collected at Palmer Station. The 2-minute data was too much and by averaging it, it will allow him and his students to better align those variable with other weather data as well as other data collected daily.
  • How did you deconstruct the science for the students?
    • Matt commented that since science is a process, breaking down the overall process into individual steps allows for students to comprehend each, and then rebuild them to complete the process. When working with data, a strategy he displays to students is to provide them with a set of numbers and ask them what they represent and/or mean. Following this, he organizes the numbers/value into a data table and then asks them if they can begin to identify relationships between the sets of data. Finally, he adds variables and units and they discuss what the numbers mean and what relationships/trends exist within the data. Student think of science as simply the experiment; however, there are other components that must be considered. Introducing science through an experiment will “hook” the student into enjoying science, but from this experiment they explain how the experiment was created and why, as well as discussing what the data means moving forward.
    • Nicole says, there is a lot of data available and when you are immersed in the science all of the time, it is easy to forget that it can be complicated. Helping to select subsets of the data is crucial to help the students focus in on parts of it without being overwhelmed. She thinks that this allows them to be better equipped to ask specific questions that they have data to answer with.
  • How did the Data Nugget evolve over conversations with the scientist? – Working with professionals opened Matt’s eyes to the mounds of data that are available. From where he stands, working with tons of numbers and data can be overwhelming; therefore, developing a more narrowed scope allowed him to refocus his ideas. Being too broad can be troublesome since there are too many variables to consider. As result of his discussions, he was able to focus on a few variables and pay closer attention to a few relationships/trends rather than an abundance of relationships/trends.
  • How did the Data Nugget evolve throughout the development and what role did classroom constraints play in this evolution? – Formatting data and making it presentable can make or break teaching data to students. If it is presented in a manner that is over-complicated and extensive, then you may lose students before you even get your main points across. The Data Nugget evolved as Matt received feedback from colleagues about what the overall goals of the Data Nugget have been established. Originally, he was trying to digest the mounds of data and didn’t have a clear direction of where he wanted to go or what he hoped his students would achieve. As result, he was able to gain valuable feedback and alter the Data Nugget with a clearer vision in mind. Classroom constraints that exists are simply the diverse learning levels of the students and their experience with data. Having the varied levels (A, B, & C) to provide students is a great approach to differentiation; however, working with students who are not overly consistent on laptops/databases prove to be a constraint.
  • What helped you be successful in this partnership?
    • Matt commented that working with Nicole for even a short period of time allowed him to appreciate the work required to take raw data and make it meaningful. Sorting through simple sets of data can be time consuming, but using Nicole as an example with my students allows them to appreciate the data they are working with. She was very informative and helpful in providing him with updated files of data for his Data Nugget.
    • Nicole says, face-to-face interaction with Matt as she helped in get the data he needed for his students. This let her explain the data a little bit more to him and they could them tease out what variables would be good for the students and what ones might be too much at once.
  • What were challenges you faced in this partnership?
    • Matt commented, quite honestly, I did not experience any challenges in this partnership. He could imagine there would be challenges in some scenarios since they do not physically work together on a daily basis; however, for their interaction it worked out well.
    • Nicole commented, the data files Matt wanted to use were too big to open in Excel. For him and his students, MatLab (a common programming and data analysis tool used by researchers) is a big jump from Excel. But, she was able to help overcome this problem by opening the data files and parsing them out in MatLab for Matt, so that his students could easily work with the data in Excel.
  • What have you learned about the audience from this partnership? – Nicole commented that she learned that the audience are students who are ambitious and plan to work with a large dataset. She also learned that it is important to describe the data and the way it is collected so that the students can have a clear understanding of what types of questions they can address using the data they choose.
earth science puns to motivate students

A corner of Matt’s classroom.

Final Thoughts:

  • Has participation in this partnership influenced your ability to more effectively communicate? – Matt responded that he certainly has a greater appreciation for what Nicole does. Working with a variety of scientists as she acts as the “Data Hub” can be a pressing position. Making sure she is in contact with the scientists to ensure data is being processed and organized requires adequate communication. When he presents this to his own students, they will be working in respective research teams. With that in mind, they must be able to not only communicate amongst themselves, but with the other research teams
  • What are some overall lessons that you’ve learned from this partnership?
    • Matt says, science is a process and each step of the process requires a role to be filled. It is clear that Nicole has a role that is essential to multiple steps in the scientific process. A goal of his is to provide his students with similar roles so they can greater appreciate the process of science as a whole.
    • Nicole says from this, she learned that large datasets can be overwhelming and pose challenges to work with if you are unfamiliar with the datasets and/or the more advanced computer programs used by the scientists to handle large amounts of data. She thinks that this could deter people from using and understanding the data. So, it is very beneficial to have a partnership between teachers/students and scientists, to help simplify and condense the data, thereby creating a better opportunity for the students to really get into and use the data without it seeming too daunting.