Duke researchers want to prove science is fun, even in the classroom

October 30, 2017

Nearly thirty graduate students from around the Triangle listen intently in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences on a mid-August Saturday, trying to answer one pressing question: What is making that sound?

“You guys know a little bit more than my first-grade students,” says Tammy Lee, assistant professor of education at East Carolina University, as a number of doctoral candidates pair the audio recordings with specific frog species. Today’s exercise, though, is less about amphibian grunts and more about how to construct a lesson plan for pre-college students. It bridges the gap between those doing cutting-edge lab work and those teaching in classrooms—precisely the goal of the Scientific Research and Education Network (SciREN).

“We as researchers have a bunch of expertise about what we do. Not just doing new stuff in our field, but also the basics of the field we’re interested in,” says Patrick Green, a Duke Ph.D. candidate in biology and one of the leaders of SciREN Triangle, which enables graduate students in the sciences to create lesson plans that current K-12 teachers can use in the classroom. But because the scientists’ explanations invariably get too advanced, Green says, “we’re very bad about being able to communicate to a K-12 audience.”

SciREN originally began at the Duke Marine Lab in 2011, where researchers from both Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill realized that such a gap existed. Researchers needed to improve their ability to “talk more coherently” about their studies to non-academics, and educators needed modern activities and new science to keep students intrigued, a desirable outcome for researchers as well. “There are so many things that we don’t understand, and there are so many new minds that we need to come in on these problems and really push this forward,” says Jacob Harrison, a Duke biology Ph.D. student and SciREN organizer.

The solution was for the researchers to convert their work into classroom exercises: For example, a recent analysis of lemur gut lengths and digestion became a game of rolling marbles (food) down various slides (the gut) and timing the progress of the marble. “At the simplest level, it’s about how do you get students to think like scientists?” Green says.

The program quickly expanded throughout the Southeast; all told, approximately 25,000 K-12 students have now experienced SciREN lesson plans. In the Research Triangle, these plans are presented to teachers at a networking fair each year (the region’s fourth was held in September) and uploaded to an online library that educators can access. During the 2016-17 school year, the Duke leaders of SciREN Triangle—Green, Eleanor Caves (biology), and Rebecca Lauzon (earth and ocean sciences)—also secured a Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks grant to pair Master of Arts in Teaching students with researchers to help structure these activities.

For the researchers, adapting their studies for anyone else can be liberating. “We all just think by ourselves all day, the specifics of our project: this experiment, this temperature, this timing, this exposure. It’s like, nobody else cares about that but me,” says Aastha Garde, a cell biology Ph.D. candidate at Duke. But when describing research to non-experts, she says, you “get to go out and tell people all the good bits about your science.”

Garde is building a genetic-inheritance activity with Katie Jacobs, a Ph.D. candidate in the University Program in Genetics and Genomics. They’re figuring out how to relay these concepts to preteens without using words like “phenotype,” “genotype,” or “Punnett square.” “It just won’t be, like, Mendelian genetics,” Garde says, the goal being to get students to distinguish patterns among different organisms. “It’ll be furry things and feathery things.”

SciREN recognizes two concurrent facts: Science is fun, and it requires creativity to unleash science’s inherent joy in the classroom. It requires unexpected ideas like Lee’s task of building noisemakers out of cups, rubber bands, and balloons to understand how a frog’s air sac works; turning questions of resource management into a simulated townhall debate, as Duke ecology Ph.D. student Emily Ury’s lesson does; and giving students, in a more complicated activity that Garde and Jacobs describe, the genetic omnipotence to create “a glitter-sneezing worm that has blue eyes.”

These attempts converge on a core tenet of scientific education: “If you figure out the right way to say it,” Green says, “you can teach it to anybody.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.