For Students from Maine, SRS Delivers a Life and Learning Experience
In spring 2019 , U.S. GLOBE sponsored its fourth annual series of Student Research Symposia (SRS) in six regions across the United States. For the first time, we followed a team of four students and two teachers from Old Town High School in Maine who attended the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic Symposium in Boston on 31 May 31 and 01 June.
For teachers who aspire to bring student researchers to future symposia, here’s what the experience was like for one team.
Sometimes, a story is better told from the end than the beginning.
Here’s the end of this story: Amanda Oertell, a sophomore from Old Town High School in Maine, and her project, were one of seven recognized by STEM professionals at the Student Research Symposium in Boston for the use of GLOBE protocols and her research process.
And here’s why that achievement is especially remarkable:
Amanda, her three peers, and two of her teachers from Old Town had not been to a GLOBE Student Research Symposium before. In fact, this was the first year they were part of the GLOBE community, yet they designed research projects, formed hypotheses, collected and analyzed data, and presented their work for scrutiny by students from schools throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region and by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professionals.
Moving from San Francisco Bay area, Amanda began her high school career in the relatively rural heart of Maine. She joined her GLOBE classmates Jacob Burns, Zak Scalese, and Bradley Frizzell in her second year when she chose the school’s new Alternative Education option.
They live in what Mainers refer to as “the other Maine,” not the more populous and affluent southern tip of the state. The other Maine is huge by comparison: a place of working forests, mountains, and farms that are a remnant of a once dominant agricultural economy. Bangor is the biggest city. It’s the kind of place where children grow up to be, as their teacher Ed Lindsey puts it, “deferential.” These students are quiet, polite, and reluctant to speak out of turn. These respectful teenagers may have been deemed unlikely to take such an intellectual chance or to take the lead in a social situation.
Critically, these four Old Town students, while coping with the challenges of all adolescents, independently made the decision to attempt a different journey to a diploma. Old Town had just created an Alternative Education Program to honor these kinds of decision makers, with community-centered, multidisciplinary courses and activity tuned to students’ interests. And this is where GLOBE lives at Old Town High School—not (yet) in the mainstream program, but in a flexible learning structure designed as a vital option for students.
This is the program that brought Amanda—a first-time GLOBE participant—the respect and accolades of scientists from Boston University, the USDA Forest Service, and the University of New Hampshire, to name a few organizations, who chose the projects to be recognized among the 38 presented in Boston.
Friday: Welcome to Boston!
The six-member team from Old Town started their symposium experience with a first for all of them: a five-hour ride on a Concord bus. Ed Lindsey wanted to get every minute out of the SRS event and planned to arrive in Boston by mid-afternoon Friday, with four project posters proofed and printed with help from mentors at the University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire.
They had a near-disaster even before reaching the BU campus. New to the Boston subway system, one of the students—Jacob—walked off the crowded train the first time the doors opened, too early for their Commonwealth Avenue stop. “We needed to take the Green Line to the Red Line, but when we got to the first stop, a flood of humanity rushed out and Jacob went with them,” Ed said. “I didn’t even know it was happening, but just before the doors closed, Jacob came running back in. He had the perspicacity to figure it out, what to do. I think he grew incredibly in that moment, that he had the presence of mind to solve a problem like that.”
It was the first clue that bringing a team to a GLOBE symposium—far from home with all kinds of new pressures—was going to be as much a life experience as a scientific one.
The team participated in a get-to-know-you activity that afternoon, building and flying kites on the Boston Esplanade, then settled into a BU dorm for a good night’s sleep before the big day.
Saturday: The main event
Early the next morning, the Old Town team entered the meeting room on the ninth floor of the Boston University Photonics Center to panoramic views of the city, with the Prudential tower and Atlantic Ocean to the east and Fenway Park to the south. About twenty GLOBE teams from Maine to Virginia with Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut in between, crowded around circular conference room tables. Nerves, and noise, ran high as 80 teenagers and their teachers put finishing touches on their project posters and whipped up the confidence to speak publicly about their work.
On one side of the room, a group of students with hearing impairments from the Lexington School for the Deaf chatted with other students, through their interpreters, about their research on the jet contrails they observed in the sky over their school in Queens, New York. On the other side of the room, teams from Nathan Bishop Middle School in Rhode Island readied their posters on water quality in Narragansett Bay and whether pill bugs and darkling beetles thrive better in salt or fresh water. (As they say, the answer would surprise you.)
In the middle of the room, the Old Town team sat around their table, with four rolled wall posters about the vernal window, local hydrology, frost patterns, and soil conductivity ready to go, clearly anxious about soon being “onstage.” (For more about their research, read the story about their mentor, Liz Burakowski, at https://www.globe.gov/web/united-states-of-america/home/news/newsdetail/14718/vernal-windows-of-opportunity)
Jen Bourgeault, U.S. Country Coordinator for the GLOBE Program, took to the podium to settle the room and outline what would happen next: first, a peer review where students rotate through the room to interact with researchers from other schools and, second, an expert review where STEM professionals, many of them Boston University researchers, interview students about their scientific process. She coached students to offer critiques that are True, Inspiring, Helpful, Necessary, and Kind: THINK. “I encourage my kids to use it all the time,” she said.
Jen also explained that during the peer and expert reviews, the team teachers and other adults were invited to kindly not be present—professional development activities had been created for them elsewhere. Ed Lindsey had mixed feelings about this: “I can understand that they don’t want teachers hanging over you,” he said. “‘Alright, Ed, you need to physically walk away from this.’ I get that the kids needed to be freed from the gaze of their teacher.”
Jen noted that some teams had created tri-fold posters for tables while others had rolled posters for tacking to a wall, and some teams needed to get creative about where to show their work.
It was a problem-solving moment for the Old Town team: their posters couldn’t stand on the table and there was only space on the wall behind them for two posters. Amanda and Bradley began scanning the conference room for wall space, and reluctantly accepted that the only space available was on the far side of the room. They were going to be separated from their friends.
With the signal from Jen to “go,” the room went into overdrive as students roamed from table to table, and wall to wall, asking each other questions: what did you study, why did you do it that way, what did you learn, how hard was it to collect the data, did you work alone or with others, are you going to keep going next year? For some students, the sharing came naturally. For our Old Town friends, it was a little harder.
Amanda, Jake, Bradley, and Zak began by giving “yes, no” and one-word answers. But as time went on, although the questions were pretty much the same, their answers became a little fuller, more confident, and more responsive.
You could see a light of realization in their eyes that other people were authentically interested not only in their science work, but in them. Other students were asking about Maine, what it’s like, how far away it is. Jake, for example, began sharing a little more about himself as a member of the Penobscot Nation, and the cultural considerations of studying the local environment, changes in the vernal window, and the implications of climate change.
At Jen’s signal, the peer review ended and the expert review began. Respecting the idea that experts and students should have one-on-one conversations, Ed Lindsey left his students alone but later shared some of what his students heard from the scientist reviewers.
“Amanda talked about it on the bus ride home and remembered some of the specifics from one reviewer who challenged parts of her hypothesis [about differences in vernal window data between hardwood and softwood forests],” Ed explained. Amanda had based some of her argument on a 2012 paper* on the topic and disagreed with some of the paper’s conclusions based on her own data. “The reviewer told Amanda things had changed since 2012, and that the paper’s hypothesis was not considered current. It was such a smart comment, and I wish I could have heard the exchange.”
Keep in mind: despite the reviewer’s advice to Amanda to consult more contemporary sources, she was given recognition that honored the quality of her use of research.
When the roundabout reviews concluded at noon, for lunch, the students were clearly tired. The afternoon gave them lighter work, with challenge activities, while the reviewers deliberated their observations and made decisions about which projects deserved recognition.
Saturday night: The ride home
“It was a big day,” Ed said, “but I did survive it!” The team bus pulled into Bangor at 10:45 p.m., but because Old Town High School serves a very wide geographic area, the night wasn’t over. Ed still had to drive some of the students home, and “one guy lives quite a ways up in the woods.”
The bus ride was quiet, the norm for this group of young scientists. “They didn’t talk much, but I could tell they were thinking hard,” Ed said. “They talked briefly about how it felt to be interviewed by other people and looking at other posters. I could sense they were satisfied with what they had done.”
And Ed’s impressions of his first symposium? “It was better than what I expected in two ways. I have a growing notion of GLOBE as a thing that grew out of the idealism of the 70s, and that was confirmed. It was exciting. And the other thing was the diversity of the kids that were there. It was such a surprise.”
“Some of the images GLOBE presents on its website tell a story about places with no electricity. That’s the spirit of it, and I see my kids’ participation as being true to that,” he said. “By subjecting ourselves to these trials of newness, it’s heroic that kids in remote places are getting their data out into the world. It’s not just a school thing, it’s a worldwide thing. That’s my perception of what GLOBE is trying to do, to give a voice to kids around the world.”
"It’s heroic that kids in remote places are getting their data out into the world. It’s not just a school thing, it’s a worldwide thing. That’s my perception of what GLOBE is trying to do, to give a voice to kids around the world.”
That’s why Ed has found GLOBE to be a great fit for Old Town’s Alternative Education Program. “It’s such an interesting group. Silence is just fine for them. We convene our alternative program in a portable double-wide behind the school, and when I go out there to meet with these students, they may not say a thing. I respect that, and just sit, and eventually someone breaks the ice and thoughts start to flow. If I wait long enough, I know a very thoughtful response will come.”
Ed emphasizes that “these are smart kids who opted out of school for some reason. It’s interesting that this category of adolescents seems to be growing, leaving more young people with few options” until the Old Town alternative program came along.
GLOBE has inspired Ed to take the program further by integrating it into the mainstream Old Town program as well. “I’m working with the librarian to create a program about the local watershed. The Penobscot nation is here and we want to look at climate change in the context of the local ecosystem and the deep history of the people.” A paleobotanist from the University of Maine came to reconstruct past landscapes of the region using pollen in lake sediment cores, and to give the context for the “peopling” of the place going back to the melting of glaciers 10,000 years ago. “Our kids wrote papers inspired by this theme. So the alternative program is an effort to invent engaging ways for authentic interdisciplinary study. GLOBE is that by design.”
GLOBE will remain firmly in Ed’s, and Old Town’s, future. “I’d like to figure out how to enter data into the GLOBE database in the coming year,” he said. “We were partially successful at that, but only got it half loaded. I’d like my kids to use GLOBE to see their own data and use GLOBE graphic techniques to represent their own data as a way to communicate with others around the planet.”
And, Ed firmly intends to go to next year’s symposium. “My impression is that they’re all going to be back. Jacob and Zak will be seniors next year, Amanda and Bradley juniors. As Bryan Murphy (the program director) guides new applicants to the alt ed program, they’ll work their way into it also.”
A final “aha” from Ed: “Next year’s symposium could be anywhere from West Virginia to Maine…we got engaged in a conversation about where we’ll go next time. Whether it’s by plane or train, we’ll be there.”
—C. Ralph Adler
* Groffman, Peter M. et al. 2012. Long-term integrated studies show complex and surprising effects of climate change in the Northern Hardwood Forests. Bioscience, vol. 62, no. 12. 1056-1066. A paper by Dr. Alix Contosta was also a motivator for this research: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.13517.
Advisor Liz Burakowski is a member of the Leitzel Center GLOBE Partnership at the University of New Hampshire. Her work with the Old Town team is supported through US Forest Service grant #18-CS-11242307-044 and NSF Macrosystems Biology #1802726.
This material is based upon work supported by NASA (Grant #80NSSC18K0135) and Youth Learning As Citizen Environmental Scientists (YLACES). Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of NASA or YLACES.
News origin: United States of America